The U.S. aerospace industry has been through government spending declines before, and while there is a sense in Washington that this one’s different, Frank Slazer isn’t so sure. The industry veteran recalls during the 1990s — he was working in the Washington office of the former McDonnell Douglas Corp. at the time — when the emphasis on deficit reduction was one of the main arguments for canceling what is now the international space station.
Not only did the space station survive multiple cancellation attempts, the nation managed to get its fiscal house in order, to the point of running a surplus, though that turned out to be short lived. Slazer maintains there’s no telling what the fiscal environment will be like five years from now.
What is different today, Slazer says, is that industry is not united the way it was back when the space station was in the crosshairs of budget hawks. These days the industrial stakeholders in NASA’s human spaceflight program are divided into two camps: those who support the White House decision to scrap the Moon-bound Constellation program and nurture commercially operated space station logistics and astronaut transportation services; and those invested in the remnants of Constellation, including the congressionally mandated heavy-lift Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion deep space crew capsule.
Slazer, whose consensus-based organization does not take sides in such matters, says it is both possible and logical to pursue both paths, a position that appears to buck the sentiments of some of his member companies. One of his main goals, he says, is to unite the industry behind that point of view.
Slazer, who came to the AIA in March, spoke recently with Space News editor Warren Ferster.
Does AIA have a position on the 2010 NASA Authorization Act?
We support the authorization.
You don’t think the legislation is overly prescriptive, particularly in the way it spells out requirements for the SLS?
It is relative to what we’ve seen in the past. On the other hand, I can understand why Congress did it that way. Congress has some strong interest in preserving the industrial base of the contractors that have the Constellation work. So they’re trying to make sure those contractors are looked after to some extent. I don’t think that’s an illegitimate concern either; it becomes a balancing act.
What about the president’s 2012 budget request for NASA?
We support the president’s budget level of $18.7 billion for NASA even though we’re disappointed that it’s not at the authorized level. On the other hand, we recommended that the proportions ought to be as close as possible to what was in the authorization, not what’s actually in the president’s budget, which is higher on commercial crew, higher than even the authorized level, and lower on exploration than the authorized level.
Shouldn’t commercial crew be emphasized in the near term to narrow the post-shuttle gap in U.S. human spaceflight capability?
That’s NASA’s argument. But where’s your NASA program to develop new technologies to do the exploration mission? You can always find something short term that needs money that’s going to push exploration to the right. It’s not clear to me that closing the gap a year earlier at the expense of giving up on the exploration piece during that period of time would be a worthwhile trade. That said, the commercial procurement approach NASA is using is a big part of why I think both efforts are affordable concurrently.
Why should NASA invest heavily in Orion and SLS now when there doesn’t appear there will be enough money for astronaut missions to deep space destinations anytime soon?
We don’t know for sure what the budgets will be in the 2016 timeframe. I’m hopeful by then we’re going to adjust our fiscal issues and we’ll be on a path to get the deficit down. The important thing, relative to exploration for this nation, is to start taking a building block approach. Can I tell you how we’re going to use these things in 2020? No, but I can tell you if we keep working on these assets we’ll start having building blocks we can start playing with. Maybe you start putting those assets together with other nations, maybe the Europeans decide they’re going to build a planetary lander, maybe the Japanese decide they’re going to build a crew habitation module that can dock to Orion and will allow you to go out to a near Earth asteroid.
The AIA has expressed concern about Pentagon efficiency and accountability initiatives cutting too deeply into industry profits. Why shouldn’t the Pentagon try to get the most for its money?
I know from experience that the government’s got tremendous visibility into the books of aerospace contractors. And if you look at it you’d be hard pressed to say people are making usurious profits. These are businesses that are very long term — you’ve got to make a lot of investments just to go after programs. When I was working on the Northrop Grumman program for exploration, we were going after the Altair lunar lander. We put in a proposal in February of 2009, the new administration came in, everything stayed on hold for 18, 19, 20 months and the company had to spend its resources to keep the team — some people you keep because you don’t really want to lose them. I don’t think there’s a great appreciation in the general public for how expensive it is to maintain the industrial capability to be able to do what we need to do for the nation’s defense.
From an industrial-base perspective, what’s your biggest concern right now?
There has not been good coordination on some of the things that were done and we’ve seen problems. The shuttle’s getting retired so suddenly the biggest business base for Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne is gone. The RS-68 engine is another product they make. Well guess what? Those costs are going up because it costs a certain amount of money to be in the rocket engine business. The other example would be when the U.S. Air Force’s Transformational Satellite program was canceled. If you buy a new satellite or design a new set of requirements, your cutting-edge people are out there designing these new systems. The people in the factory floor that are building to existing blueprints are a different set of skills. They’re both highly skilled, both important, but you need to have something constantly in the developmental pipeline to make sure the U.S. stays ahead technically over potential adversaries.
Can we really afford major research and development programs just for the sake of keeping those skills honed?
It comes down to maybe that’s a cost inefficiency that you just have to bear.
Is a National Space Council needed to coordinate decisions across the various U.S. agencies involved in space?
The short answer is yes. This is not that huge a sector of the economy that you can make major changes on government programs without impacting other parts of the industry.
Why does export reform continue to stall despite a decade’s worth of evidence that the current rules do more harm than good to U.S. national security?
We need to continue to make the case and work with the administration. People in the war-fighting community are articulating the need to do this. The industrial base is being shrunk. Maybe you wouldn’t have to emphasize production quite as much if you had more commercial satellites going through. Maybe you wouldn’t have to worry about all the different parts in the supply chain if you were able to sell elements that go into satellites to other countries. Those arguments are going to have more weight in the current environment precisely because of the pressure of the defense budget going down. Congress can be a funny place sometimes. You can get one or two members in key positions that really have the ability to throw sand in the wheels of change and you really just have to work on convincing them.
Is there any reason to be optimistic now about reform?
The main thing here is this is turning out to be a significant priority for this administration. I don’t think we’ve seen that before. I think we’ve had support from the [George W.] Bush administration but not a lot of strong support. These guys seem to really get it.
Should the United States be cooperating with China in space?
Some people have very strong feelings about not doing anything with China. But in the long run it’s going to be the largest economy in the world; we’re going to wind up cooperating with them in space. We were in the Cold War with the Russians for 45, 50 years and now we work with them in space. Over time space has proven to be a great place to start working together and not necessarily just by providing them an opportunity to earn export income by launching our satellites but actually working on missions together. China’s too big of a player on the world stage to not be part of the space equation amongst the nations and it’s going to happen.
Isn’t industry downsizing inevitable and even healthy given the budgetary outlook?
If we downsize our defense I think it’s all the more important that we invest in space and aerospace systems that give us the crucial edge, the crucial capability. I don’t want to lose that capability.