Keeping America Reaching for the Skies

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In 1962, President John F. Kennedy famously said, “We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.” It was hard, but we did it. Just 12 years after Russia launched the first man-made satellite, Sputnik, into space, America answered the challenge and landed a man on the Moon. The space industry was born. America made a massive investment in research and development, employed the best and brightest scientists, mathematicians and engineers, and put unprecedented emphasis on science education. America made worldwide headlines, and just about every kid on Earth wanted to be Neil Armstrong. America was the most powerful country in the world, in part, because we controlled the skies.

Today, more than 50 years later, America’s dominance in space is fragile. President Barack Obama announced he plans to cancel Constellation, the program to return astronauts to the Moon by 2020. This move jeopardizes an $11.5 billion investment, puts thousands of skilled scientists out of work, and shakes the very heart of the space industrial base. Younger generations aren’t growing up striving to be astronauts or wanting to work on the next big space project because there isn’t one. There isn’t any research and development under way to get a manned mission back to the Moon or to Mars. Private companies don’t know what to expect so they are hesitant to invest in emerging technologies for fear of losing money. At the same time, China and Russia are nipping at our heels. China is pumping money into its space plan, subsidizing private investments in space technology and setting its sights on a Moon landing by 2020.

Satellites are important because they keep us safe. We use satellites and their images to track suspected terrorists around the world and stop future attacks. Satellites provide real-time data to our troops on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan and allow us to monitor important global developments. Back here at home, we use satellites to operate the GPS system in our cars or make a cell phone call from Washington, D.C., to a friend out West. When you buy a toy for your child at Wal-Mart, a satellite lets the distribution center know that shelf needs to be restocked. Satellites are an integral part of our worldwide communication system.

We on the U.S. House Technical and Tactical (T&T) Intelligence Subcommittee have focused on maintaining America’s dominance in space. When I took over as chairman four years ago, my colleagues and I conducted a thorough review to find out how to stay ahead in the space race. Unfortunately, we found undisciplined program management and skyrocketing costs, outdated export controls, the lack of a comprehensive space plan and inadequate spacecraft launch capability. These challengers are weakening America’s strength in space. I fear we are giving Russia and China a head start and, without swift action, the United States may never recover.

The T&T subcommittee immediately started to work to maintain America’s dominance in space. We passed several measures to ensure better oversight of satellite programs. Lax program management was costing our country millions of dollars. In the Intelligence Authorization bill for 2010, we included a Nunn-McCurdy provision, which forces space programs to come in on time and on budget or face immediate cancellation unless a review finds it is critically important for national security. We encouraged the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) to invest only in space systems with proven technology to prevent costly delays when research and development is conducted on-the-spot. We also promoted greater collaboration between different agencies, including NASA, the intelligence community and the Department of Defense. By sharing technologies such as spacecraft mission software, each agency can learn from the other and save critical dollars by preventing redundancy.

In the past four years, we’ve made substantial progress relaxing export regulations that have stifled the American space industry, specifically the International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR). Twenty years ago, American companies controlled more than 70 percent of the commercial satellite industry, but because of ITAR, that number had dropped to 27 percent. The House passed language in the Foreign Relations Authorization Act that relaxed ITAR restrictions when satellites and components are widely available and do not pose a national security risk. The bill stalled in the Senate, but the exposure got the attention of the Obama administration, which is currently reforming the regulations. This will allow U.S. space companies to sell much more of their technologies overseas, increase their market share, and offer the United States better products at lower prices.

Less progress has been made creating a long-term plan for space, and our problems with launch technology have not been addressed. Right now, America spends more money per rocket launch and faces more delays than any other country in the world, in part, because of the way we manage and assemble the rocket on the launch pad. If there is a technical problem, it is fixed on the pad, delaying future launches. Other countries assemble their rockets off-site and bring them to the launch pad when they are ready for liftoff, preventing bottlenecks and reducing costs. In fact, other countries are seeing their overall costs drop. The United States is not, because the government has committed to a two-company alliance to handle all launches, despite the fact that other U.S. companies are showing promise in the field. Commercial capabilities must be considered in certain cases for launching Earth observation satellites, transmitting satellite images, going back and forth to the international space station or doing other things in low Earth orbit, from the Earth’s surface up to an altitude of 2,000 kilometers.

Ironically, the United States will soon rely on Russia, our one-time space nemesis, to provide transportation for our astronauts to the space station. Currently, half of the United States’ military rockets are launched on a system that requires engines purchased from Russia. When the last shuttle launch takes place in 2011, the United States will have to pay Russia to bring American scientists to the space station. America must invest in its own launch capability to end our reliance on Russian engine technology as a matter of national security.

Constellation was not perfect, but to give up our quest to return to the Moon, Mars and beyond is not what is best for America’s space program. We need a new road map outlining our future in space. We must commit to return to the Moon through a program run by NASA in partnership with private companies. These companies must make an immediate investment into a bigger American-made engine to get us to the Moon without relying on Russia. This new plan must reinvigorate our space industrial base and get our young people excited and dreaming about America’s future in space.

As we begin the 112th Congress, we must not forget President Kennedy’s famous words. Together, Republicans and Democrats must do what is hard, but also necessary to keep us reaching for the skies. We have made great strides, but so much more needs to be done.

 

Rep. C.A. “Dutch” Ruppersberger (D-Md.) is former chairman of the U.S. House Technical and Tactical Intelligence Subcommittee.