The U.S. space community and all government and business organizations that support it are at a crossroads, facing an uncertain future unlike any seen in decades. This uncertainty has implications to our national security, our industrial base and our nation’s ability to continue accessing and exploring space without being dependent on foreign providers.
With the retirement of the space shuttle program fast approaching, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden has called for a new approach to spaceflight, with stronger NASA-industry partnerships to move forward. Speaking to the Federal Aviation Administration Commercial Space Transportation Conference recently, Mr. Bolden noted that a new government-industry partnership is needed to make operations cost-effective. I agree with him that a new approach is needed, but I also believe that partnership is just a start. It requires a new and smarter model for continuing to achieve objectives safely and reliably, and also more affordably.
This new model must address risk posture, acquisition strategy and approach, production volumes and capacity, as well as long-term technology development and adoption. It also must achieve the right balance between investing in emerging and existing space industries. This investment must encourage budding commercial space businesses while recognizing and building upon the strong foundation of our historic space program, which has a proven record of successfully sending astronauts into space and returning them safely to Earth.
With the numerous constraints and ambitious objectives for human spaceflight and science in Earth orbit and beyond, the dialogue must not be about new space vs. old space. It must be about how we can all work together, using our unique technologies and capabilities to help NASA define a future space.
In this future space, the mission must be affordable, but it also must be realistic, practical, sustainable and relevant. It must be realistic about the financial environment facing the industry, including flat year-over-year NASA budgets and pressures on our space industrial base. We all must focus on meeting our goals faster, with streamlined processes and less duplication of effort. We must be smarter about how we deploy work so that it allows us to spread fixed costs over a larger base. In future space, and in industries’ partnership with NASA, risk will be shared in a win-win relationship that provides the best value for the U.S. government and the taxpayer, while also allowing industry to earn a reasonable return.
We will not build this future space business model by extrapolating the past or continuing to do things the way we’ve always done them. There are efficiency initiatives that can be implemented very quickly to help ensure that NASA can achieve its mission safely and affordably. However, we first need to ensure that all of us clearly understand what level of risk is acceptable to NASA and the country. Over the past 50 years, the space industry culture has been to eliminate any potential risk. But this mindset has resulted in devoting so much funding and resources to reducing marginal risks that it has become unsustainable. We must and can rely more on the proven experience and demonstrated track record of companies such as mine that have been operating commercially for decades.
In addition, to achieve future space, the U.S. government must commit to a level of investment and production volume that ensures critical industrial base skills are developed and retained. Thousands of federal and state jobs tied to the space industry are at stake. Local economies such as Florida’s Space Coast and aerospace communities in Alabama, California, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas await the sea change in the industry to become more defined. These changes must happen soon or our space industrial base will continue to be in crisis, threatening our national security. Designing, developing, testing and manufacturing the hardware and software to access and explore space requires highly skilled people with unique knowledge and technical expertise developed over decades. The United States can have a tremendous vision for space exploration, but if the people with these critical skills are not preserved and developed, that vision cannot be brought to life.
This future space will enable NASA to continue its charter of U.S. access to and exploration of the cosmos safely and affordably. Crafting this future space must be done with pragmatism, and the road forward must be paved with innovative, efficient technologies, processes and strategies. Committing to work together in a new way will help forge the correct path for government and industry alike.
Industry and government must work together to answer Mr. Bolden’s call, maintaining our leadership position as global innovators in space with a viable, cost-effective business model. Most of all, we must start now. We cannot afford to wait until we have all the answers. This industry has smart people with excellent judgment, and we will figure out the details, but not if we don’t get moving. The authorization language is clear. The need and desire to partner is clear. The need to start moving with velocity now is clear, and we are ready.
Jim Maser is the president of Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne.