NASA administrator: UM to play big role in space exploration

Sarah Rahal
The Detroit News

Ann Arbor — University of Michigan space researchers took a giant leap with NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine on Saturday as they discussed the future of space exploration and UM's role in navigating the galaxy.

Bridenstine, born in Ann Arbor, toured the university's moon/Mars habitat ahead of the football game Saturday night against Notre Dame. At halftime, UM commemorated the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11 and celebrate its leadership team.

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine stands with University of Michigan students as they discussed the future of space exploration and UM's role in navigating the galaxy.

Bridenstine and UM space research leaders discussed NASA's Artemis lunar exploration program and how universities like Michigan will play a big role in the future of space exploration. Artemis aims to go back to the moon by 2024, establish a sustainable human presence there by 2028, and move on to Mars in the 2030s. 

Bridenstine said the visit was eye-opening and a great opportunity to see how NASA integrates with the university system in America. He said UM was going to be "transformational in bringing departments together under one umbrella."

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine holds a UM football helmet in front of one of the past researchers who also studied space exploration at the university.

"These bright, young minds that have new ways of thinking and new technologies and bring them to the table early in their careers as students ... and are gaining experience that are ideal for a lot of the missions NASA does," Bridenstine said. 

What's unique about UM is that it's working to advance solar electric propulsion to achieve a maneuverable gateway to the moon, Bridenstine said. 

"One of the things we need to get really good at is solar electric propulsion. Right now, there's a policy directive from the president to go to the moon sustainably, we don't want it to end the way Apollo ended," he said.

"In order to achieve that, we're going to put around the moon what we call Gateway. Think of it as a reusable command module, in orbit, around the moon for 15 years. From Gateway, we're going to be able to go back and forth to the surface of the moon ... and will have an open architecture for other countries, private companies and universities who can build applications on the Gateway to study."

Alec Gallimore, dean of the College of Engineering, said the university will be stretching its thinking by implementing a new University of Michigan Space Institute to bring together like-minded students, faculty and alumni.

"Space exploration, and the research it supports, have shaped our world and changed lives. Some future possibilities test the limits of imagination. To realize those possibilities, I am pleased to announce the Space Institute," Gallimore said. "It is a dream come true for me, and for many others here as we look forward to the next great advance of the space frontier. The realization of that dream will transport all of us on a voyage of discovery."

The Space Institute brings together researchers from across the university including aerospace engineering, climate space sciences, physical sciences, life sciences, and "ultimately, we expect many other units from across the university to collaborate and new ideas for space exploration as we enter 2020," Gallimore said.

Gallimore said the future of space research will demand that scientists and engineers collaborate outside their field. They'll need to soon work with international law and policy experts to regulate how nations operate on the moon and other planets. They will continue to explore ways humans and robots can collaborate to keep astronauts safe and develop more technology to take man to Mars and be able to live off the land. 

"This university continues its history of space research that dates back to the establishment of NASA," he said. "We count 22 living and deceased astronauts among our faculty and alumni base. Researchers at UM have built and flown more than 35 instruments on NASA spacecraft. Our instruments have been to every planet in the Solar System and beyond."

Student members of the UM Bioastronautics and Life Support Systems gave tours to Bridenstine showcasing a prototype Moon/Mars habitat they're developing, which is funded in part by NASA.

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine tours the University of Michigan Moon/Mars habitat with master students Amit Kothekar, left, and Alexander Sena, center, on Saturday, Oct. 26, 2019.

"It's vindicating to have the administrator come and see what we have to offer," said Amit Kothekar, 22, space system engineering masters student. "It's amazing to have the person you're trying to work for come and inspire people and it's really nice to see that much trust placed into us."

There are more than 250 students at the University of Michigan studying space exploration and masters student Alexander Sena said the establishment of the Space Institute is a sign of importance.

"We need to go across so many different departments to make something work and as space engineers, we end up being organizers most of the time," said Sena, 22, space system engineer masters student. "This has been important at the student level and now shows that it's important at the university level."

More moon-related coverage:

They were joined by UM and NASA space research experts and leaders including Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for the NASA Science Mission; Tuija Pulkkinen, chair of the UM Department of Climate and Space Sciences and Engineering; Anthony Waas, chair of the UM Department of Aerospace Engineering, and Ted Bergin, Department of Astronomy chair.

Pulkkinen said the students are to credit for the advancement work the university has to showcase.

"Students do all of this independently and are incredibly active and that speaks to the quality of the university," she said. "They are doing models, projections, weather forecasts and all to be continued by other students that come after them. It really takes a heritage because you can't build something like this overnight."

Bridenstine told students his best piece of career advice was that the "key to growth is simple, and never changes. Sustained, superior, performance."

"Know what your job is and do the absolute best job you can do where you are when you're there and make sure that it is sustained superior performance," he said. "There's a lot of ways to get ahead but the truth is the truth and if you have sustained superior performance, people are going to notice and want you to be involved."

Twitter: @SarahRahal_