Perhaps in an effort to emulate John F. Kennedy, and to have something to crow about during what he hopes is just his first term, President Donald Trump is pushing NASA to accelerate the Space Launch System (SLS) program to include astronauts on Orion’s first launch. NASA had originally planned for the first launch, Exploration Mission 1 (EM-1), scheduled for late 2018, to be an unmanned mission that would orbit the Moon and return. They planned to follow that with EM-2 several years later, after Trump’s first year in office, during the first term of his successor, should he not be re-elected. Bowing to the pressure from the White House, acting NASA Administrator Robert Lightfoot sent a letter to NASA employees, instructing them to investigate the feasibility of including astronauts on EM-1.

Let’s not forget what happened the last time NASA succumbed to pressure to launch. Seven astronauts died. I have a tremendous amount of respect for NASA and, over the course of the entire manned space program from Mercury to the Space Shuttle, they have completed hundreds of launches with what could be considered an astonishingly small loss of life for such dangerous endeavors and the numbers of astronauts launched into space. I just hope that, under pressure from a president who only seeks a feather in his cap, NASA doesn’t make a decision that could put astronauts’ lives in danger.

The text of Lightfoot’s letter:

Good morning! As I’ve discussed before, we continue working closely with the transition team. The members of the team are excited to be a part of this great agency and everyone is committed to keeping you informed of developments. I know you’ve been reading a lot in the media and hearing from colleagues about what may or may not be our future direction. I want you to know that when those decisions are made, you’ll hear it from me.

From my interactions with the transition team, NASA is clearly a priority for the President and his administration. Since most of you weren’t able to join me today at the Space Launch System/Orion Suppliers Conference, I wanted to share what I told that group. I told them how critical their work is to our future — to the nation’s future and our next giant leaps in exploration.

I shared that we’ve already hit a lot of milestones, and the next ones are on the close horizon. It’s a testament to your hard work that we were able to say that last year, and we’re confidently able to say it again this year.

The magnitude of what we’re doing with SLS and Orion is incredible, as are the capabilities we’re creating for this nation, which will take humans farther than we ever have before.

At NASA, we’re leveraging the very best the country has to offer on this work, and it’s advancing the national economy.

As the Acting Administrator, my perspective is that we are on the verge of even greater discoveries. President Trump said in his inaugural address that we will “unlock the mysteries of space.” Accordingly, it is imperative to the mission of this agency that we are successful in safely and effectively executing both the SLS and Orion programs.

Related to that, I have asked Bill Gerstenmaier to initiate a study to assess the feasibility of adding a crew to Exploration Mission-1, the first integrated flight of SLS and Orion. I know the challenges associated with such a proposition, like reviewing the technical feasibility, additional resources needed, and clearly the extra work would require a different launch date. That said, I also want to hear about the opportunities it could present to accelerate the effort of the first crewed flight and what it would take to accomplish that first step of pushing humans farther into space. The SLS and ORION missions, coupled with those promised from record levels of private investment in space, will help put NASA and America in a position to unlock those mysteries and to ensure this nation’s world pre-eminence in exploring the cosmos.

There has been a lot of speculation in the public discourse about NASA being pulled in two directions — what has come before and what we want to do now. At NASA, this is an “and” proposition, not an “or.” To get where we want to go, we need to work with the companies represented at the SLS and Orion suppliers conference AND those industry partners that work with us in other areas across the country — all of whom have the long-term view on this work. We must work with everyone to secure our leadership in space — and we will.

This is indeed an exciting time for our agency, and I know all of us share in this enthusiasm. I admire your passion and energy, and I want you to know how important you are to the success of the team and to the future of NASA. Your innovation and creative thinking will drive America’s influence in the coming years and decades.

Stay focused. Thanks for all you are doing every day, and I will share more with you in future updates.