I recently attended the 27th National Space Symposium in Colorado Springs. As I sat through a recording of the Rice Stadium moon speech given by JFK back in 1962 and watched children clamber for astronaut Joe Engle’s autograph, I reflected on those glory days when Americans had the momentum and the luxury to “do things not because they are easy, but because they are hard.”
Tuesday, June 14th, marked the 50th anniversary of Yuri Gagarin’s flight as the first man in space, and the 30th anniversary of the first Space Shuttle mission—a feat that put the United States back on the map in human spaceflight. But the final flight of the Space Shuttle this week and the outsourcing of crew transportation to and from the International Space Station has left many questioning where NASA goes (or does not go) from here.
Back in the 1960s, beating the Soviets to the moon was a winning mantra. But now, with a floundering US economy, it’s harder to sell a vastly over-budget space program to the public, that, by and large, don’t see the point in supporting a race to gain dominance in a field where any payoff is light years away.
Apparently, the current administration agrees, handing NASA a flat budget and a mandate to develop and modify existing technology that will make space exploration more affordable, safer and greener, as well as focusing on the practical benefits of Earth observation.
Lori Garver, Deputy Administrator at NASA, responded at the symposium: “Right this moment, our priorities are known—to safely fly out the shuttle program, to maintain the safety of our astronauts on the International Space Station; develop deep space exploration vehicles; facilitate commercial access to the station—providing multiple, made-in-America paths to Low Earth Orbit: transform the knowledge landscape through our Earth and space science mission; and make the breakthrough in aviation technology that will make flying safer, more efficient, and greener.”
(Read Garver’s full statement on NASA’s future)
What this really means for space exploration depends on how you define “space.” NASA does aim to land on an asteroid in 2025. But some in the space community worry that if the US doesn’t push aggressively beyond the exploration of low Earth orbit right now it will begin to fall behind countries like China and start to lose critical skills from its workforce.
Loss of skills in the workforce was a main theme in the symposium. Fred Gregory, Former Commander of Space Shuttles Atlantis and Discovery spoke about the state of US manufacturing: “America has the disturbing tendency to give away its strength and power. I challenge anyone to look around their home and find a piece of equipment made in America,” he said. “We live in the age of consumerism – but when you focus entirely on the product and not manufacturing that is bad.”
“We must continue to maintain and motivate our industrial base, said David DiCarlo, Space Systems VP at Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems. “Skills in technology and engineering take years to build and we are at risk of these skills becoming extinct in this country.”
As NASA bids farewell to the Space Shuttle, the US should take care not to simultaneously lose footing in the commercial satellite and space launch industry. Over the past five years there’s been a huge spike in the global demand for satellite television and devices and chips that rely on GPS satellites for navigation and logistics. The US is at a critical disadvantage because of government imposed export policies. The International Traffic in Arms Regulations—which state that all components of (American) civilian spacecraft must be treated as weapons—has hindered the export of US-manufactured space parts to the rest of the world. Europe and Asia have found alternatives to US technology, forging ahead while America is busy tying itself up in bureaucratic red tape.
“We need better product stability and demand for US products,” said Joanne Maguire, Executive VP at Lockheed Martin Space Systems Company. “US spacecraft manufacturers have seen their market share fall from 73% in 1998 to less than 30% today. Foreign suppliers are all over the US market but not vice-versa.”
So where does the US go from here? It’s clear that it will have to embrace the commercial space industry and perhaps look to international collaboration rather than competition. A new era is dawning for the US space industry, and our space programs will have to be redefined, but opportunities still abound for innovators who have the spirit to press ahead and dream big.