Former USAF Astronaut—Now NASA’s No. 2—on Russia, the Future of the ISS, and the Military on the Moon

Drawn closer by business interests and geopolitical necessity, the military and NASA “would be remiss” not to collaborate more, said the space agency’s No. 2 political appointee Pam Melroy.

Yet as the Defense Department has committed billions in weapons toward a Russian defeat in Ukraine, with both sides trading sanctions, Melroy—NASA’s deputy administrator and a former Air Force astronaut—said the war hadn’t yet hurt relations inside the International Space Station. There, U.S. astronauts and Russian cosmonauts still work side by side.

Melroy touched on NASA’s shared interests with the military in an interview while visiting the aerospace engineering sciences department at the University of Colorado Boulder on May 5. 

The ongoing goodwill she described among the space station crew, and continued cooperation with Russia’s space agency, included Russia’s safe return of a U.S. astronaut aboard a Russian Soyuz capsule in March.

But such good relations hadn’t been reflected in the headlines on Earth—or the conditions in orbit—over the past several months, when events surrounding the station served as both a preview and a sideshow to the invasion.

Precarious Scenario

A former test pilot who logged combat and combat support hours along the way, Melroy flew and commanded space shuttle missions, going to space three times, all of which were to construct the ISS.

NASA believes the now two-decades-old station could operate safely through 2031, but anything beyond 2024 would rely on Russia to extend its agreement to cooperate. Russia built and operates the Zvezda Service Module that houses aspects of the station’s operations including flight control and propulsion.

However, even with Russian crew onboard, the ISS became the focal point of news coverage following a Russian military demonstration in the run-up to the invasion, and the station has provided a rhetorical opportunity for the Russian government since.

ISS crew members had to take cover inside their return capsules Nov. 15, 2021, in the immediate aftermath of a Russian missile test that destroyed a defunct Soviet satellite. The collision created a debris field that passed too closely to the ISS in the subsequent orbits right after the hit.

Experts speculated that Russia’s President Vladimir Putin intended the test as a “show of strength” as Russian troops massed on Ukraine’s border. Then a day after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the head of Russia’s Roscosmos space agency, Dimitry Rogozin, began mentioning how the ISS would uncontrollably deorbit without Russia’s participation.

Pointing out that “it’s just important to understand that Rogozin is a politician, and he is operating in a deeply political environment in Russia right now,” Melroy said she hadn’t found anything alarming about a more recent remark.

Rather than saying in early May that Russia was walking away from the ISS when its agreement runs out in 2024, “he said that they will honor their commitment until 2024 and give us a one-year notice before they leave,” Melroy said.

U.S. and European officials have estimated that Russia’s anti-satellite test in November created sufficient debris to double the number of evasive maneuvers that satellites such as the ISS will have to make in low Earth orbit. Meanwhile, concern exists that some spacefaring entity could ultimately weaponize debris.

In a reference to Iran and North Korea testing intercontinental ballistic missiles, a fellow former astronaut of Melroy’s, now-Sen. Mark Kelly (D-Ariz.), said in a hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee on March 8:

“One concern is that ICBMs can be used to create a debris cloud in low Earth orbit, and that could impact U.S. satellites.”

‘Commercial’ in Common

Even with “very different, very distinct missions,” NASA and the military “need to be connected at the top, and we need to be connected at the operational working level,” said Melroy, describing the current scenario in which NASA personnel at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, for example, work closely with military personnel at Patrick Space Force Base to carry out a busy calendar of space launches.

The same holds true for the teams who monitor the trajectory of the ISS to keep it from colliding with other objects in orbit.

At the highest administrative levels, NASA and DOD officials recognize that “what we each do impacts the other,” Melroy said. But “there is this big gap in the field, in the middle, that don’t actually work very closely together.”

However, “I think you see these places where industry is dragging us together,” she said, such as a mutual interest in the services of commercial remote sensing providers. 

As DOD entities have begun to stitch together government and commercial space assets into a so-called “hybrid architecture,” NASA has demonstrated overt successes in contracting for things that the government would have otherwise bought and owned the hardware for.

Particularly fruitful over the past decade have been NASA’s public-private partnerships to fund transportation to and from the ISS. SpaceX and Northrop Grumman now resupply cargo—and, in SpaceX’s case, crew. The companies had to partially pay for the development of the space capsules that they could then turn into private fleets.

Melroy reported that companies given contracts more recently, to robotically deliver research payloads to the moon, “have found other customers right away.”

Incorporating commercial constellations is one strategy the Space Force is pursuing to fulfill Secretary of the Air Force Frank Kendall’s No. 1 “operational imperative” to create a resilient space architecture. Proliferating the numbers and types of surveillance sources, as the thinking goes, will make the U.S.’s overall operation more resilient.

Meanwhile, U.S. Space Command has said it’s investigating what services commercial providers have to offer that could fill capability gaps, though some experts question the legality of intermingling military and civilian property. At least one cyberattack against a U.S. satellite constellation has occurred during the war in Ukraine.

Military on the Moon

Aside from the possibility of a science station, Melroy dismissed the prospect of a future military base on the moon based on the U.S.’s participation in the Outer Space Treaty of 1967.

“I’m happy to report to you that as the deputy administrator of NASA, NASA will follow all treaties and laws, and I support and uphold that,” Melroy said.

The U.S. is “very separated in civil space and national security space,” Melroy said. “That’s not true around the world. What that means is [that] if you’re smart, you understand that other people may think we’re doing stuff together, even when we’re not.

“So actually making sure that we’re talking at the highest policy level [is important] about things like, ‘What are we doing? And what are the implications of that?’”

Military research and “other peaceful purposes” a military might undertake receive an exclusion under the treaty that otherwise prohibits the “establishment of military bases, installations, and fortifications; the testing of any type of weapons; and the conduct of military manuevers on celestial bodies.”

But as reported by Politico in March, the military already has plans for the moon that may amount to militarization, such as interest by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency in building large structures there; and by the Air Force Research Laboratory in a surveillance network to cover the space between the Earth and the moon.

The commander of U.S. Space Command, Army Gen. James H. Dickinson, has said the military plans to “be there” for NASA and commercial providers of “critical” space infrastructure as activity picks up on and around the moon.

NASA and the military both have a stake in shaping norms of behavior in space, Melroy said, which along with the development of new technologies, could be another opportunity for NASA and the military to work together.