Editorial | Staying on the Cutting Edge

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Increasingly, it seems, NASA is being looked upon by the U.S. government to take on the kinds of technology development efforts that keep the research and development side of the nation’s industrial base warm while yielding advances in capability that eventually work their way into operational systems.

U.S. President Barack Obama’s vision for NASA’s exploration program hinges in large part on so-called game-changing technologies that might, for example, dramatically cut the time required to travel to Mars. The president has specifically pledged to spend $3 billion over the next five years on research that might yield a better solution for a heavy-lift rocket that eventually would support astronaut missions to deep-space destinations such as asteroids or Mars.

By contrast, in the U.S. Department of Defense, space-technology development spending has dropped following the cancellation of ambitious projects like the Space Radar and Transformational Satellite communications system. While the Pentagon’s ongoing satellite fleet-recapitalization effort has kept many production lines active, industry and government officials have expressed concern about a dearth in cutting-edge technology work. Rather than pursuing risky next-generation capabilities, the Pentagon is planning evolutionary upgrades to existing systems including the Wideband Global Satcom and Advanced Extremely High Frequency satellite systems.

The GPS 3 satellite navigation system, slated to begin launching in 2014, represents a next-generation capability. But having been stung too many times in the recent past by high-risk development efforts, the U.S. Air Force is taking an extremely cautious approach that introduces new capabilities incrementally.

Even the U.S. National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), similarly burned on what was supposed to be its next-generation optical spy satellite system, appears to have stepped back from its traditional role as technological vanguard. The agency’s next optical imaging system, as currently planned, will be based closely on the previous generation of satellites produced by longtime incumbent Lockheed Martin Space Systems.

NRO Director Bruce Carlson recently lamented the fact that science and technology spending at his agency has been cut in half over the last five years. Saying this trend is effectively mortgaging the future, Carlson vowed to work to fully restore that funding, beginning with the 2012 budget request.

U.S. Air Force Gen. Robert Kehler, commander of Air Force Space Command, has voiced warnings about the erosion of the industrial base and a risk-averse environment that discourages technology development. In some sectors, he said, there is no longer industrial competition, a proven driver of innovation.

For the Air Force, NASA appears to be part of the solution. According to briefing charts from a recent industry day at the Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center in Los Angeles, the service expects NASA to spend $5 billion over the next five years upgrading launch-range facilities at the Kennedy Space Center and potentially at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, which is co-located with Kennedy in Florida.

It isn’t clear where the $5 billion figure came from: NASA’s budget includes $2 billion over half a decade for range upgrades. But a portion of the $3 billion in NASA’s heavy-lift research account could go toward a new main-stage rocket engine fueled by kerosene and liquid-oxygen, something that was mentioned in the briefing charts as a future technology need for the Air Force’s launcher program.

The government’s recognition that agencies can and should leverage one another’s space investments is a good thing; a holistic, coordinated approach to space technology development is warranted under any circumstances but especially now, as Pentagon budgets tighten.

But NASA cannot carry the entire load. While there are exploration-enabling technologies that are directly applicable to Pentagon needs — rocket engines being one — there are others that are of little military utility outside the realm of science fiction. These include advanced life support systems and nuclear propulsion. Similarly, there are critical military requirements that fall outside of what NASA does, particularly in the communications and surveillance and reconnaissance arenas.

Mr. Carlson’s concern about the declining science and technology spending appear well founded given the NRO’s unique mission, and his bid to reverse the trend deserves White House support. Something similar is needed for the Air Force, which has few if any procurements planned that are likely to drive competitors to push the state of the art in space technology. An investment strategy that relies too heavily on evolutionary upgrades to existing capabilities risks raising a high barrier to more-substantive advances when the time comes to field next-generation systems. The administration’s industrial-base challenge in the years ahead is not just to preserve existing manufacturing capabilities: industry’s competitive edge must be maintained as well.