NASA can still teach private space sector lessons about going into outer space

Key Points
  • Even as private companies dominate the next phase of space travel, record-setting astronaut Peggy Whitson explained why NASA is still necessary.
  • NASA does "the real deep space exploration that allows commercial providers to have the means for going," she told CNBC.
Bill Ingalls | NASA | Getty Images

Nowadays, discussions about the future of space are more likely to reference private companies like SpaceX, Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin than NASA — the federal agency responsible for putting a man on the moon.

On Thursday, the Trump administration released a set of guidelines to reform and update U.S. policy toward private space endeavors. Tellingly, NASA's sole mention came at the end of the document announcing President Donald Trump's directive, where he called for the space agency to "return American astronauts to the moon, followed by human missions to Mars."

U.S. astronaut Peggy Whitson, who's been making the rounds in the media recently to promote "One Strange Rock" — a series about the complexity of human life on earth — told CNBC in an interview that another journey to the moon was advisable before aiming for Mars. There are lessons that need to be learned before undertaking a farther and riskier journey to the red planet, she said.

"Going to the moon first is smart, just like we're learning about how longer duration in space is smart," said Whitson, who spent so many days in orbit that one of her colleagues called her an "American space ninja."

She added that NASA was critical to testing theories, and laying a blueprint that SpaceX and others should follow as they endeavor to send humans to Mars, and perhaps beyond. "We need to test new techniques and make sure they're going to work," she added.

An Orbital ATK Antares rocket launches from Pad-0A on November 12, 2017 at NASA's Wallops Flight Facility
Bill Ingalls | NASA

Trump's announcement last week underscored the meteoric rise of commercial ventures, and the commensurate decline in NASA's public profile.

It also broadly reflects a society ambivalent at best about the government's role in pioneering the next phase of space exploration. A 2015 Pew Research Center poll showed that nearly half of adults say the federal government's place in future space travel should be minimal or nonexistent.

Yet as the next global space race develops, Whitson thinks people shouldn't be so quick to discount NASA's involvement. She believes the agency is set to do much of the heavy lifting that private companies will need to flourish in outer space.

"NASA is doing what it should be doing as a government organization … the real deep space exploration that allows commercial providers to have the means for going," the Iowa native and former commander of the International Space Station told CNBC.

It means that entrepreneurs like Elon Musk, who boasted in March that SpaceX could be ready to send a rocket to Mars as soon as next year, will still need NASA to set the stage for the eventual exploration and colonization of other planets, Whitson said.

"Elon says he's going to get [to Mars] first, and that would be great, but there's a lot of test" beforehand, she told CNBC. "In the future there will be commercial companies in space, but until then ... NASA has to progress and build a presence."

Nor should the U.S. try and go it alone, Whitson added. She insisted that the future of international cooperation in space travel remains bright — even with geopolitical tensions flare.

"I actually think that the space station is demonstrating what we can do internationally — [with] any great endeavor it's going to be most successful and best done internationally," the astronaut told CNBC.

The legacy of the ISS will be that "we can do these complex things together internationally. I know it sounds a little like rose-colored glasses, but if we can do this maybe it will be our path forward in the future."