It is often argued, and I would certainly agree, that the large aerospace prime contractors, such as Boeing, Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman, are strategic national assets that the U.S. government needs to preserve, even at some loss of economic efficiency. However, at this time of increasing dependence on space systems and declining resources with which to create and maintain them, those companies, such as AeroAstro, that have a history and experience base building smaller, much-lower-cost spacecraft are also a strategic national asset that must be preserved if we are going to simultaneously reduce the cost of future space missions and increase or maintain our space capabilities.
One could argue that the AeroAstros of the world aren’t really necessary and that the people will still be around even if the company is not. After all, Rick Fleeter, who founded AeroAstro, has since left the company and moved on to other pursuits and other key players will be moving on to other programs and companies. However, many of those who leave AeroAstro will also leave aerospace and find work in more stable and rewarding arenas. The corporate memory that was AeroAstro will be lost, just as a great deal of corporate memory would be lost if Boeing decided to leave the space business.
The net result of either Boeing or AeroAstro closing is a strategic loss for the United States. If Boeing were to choose to leave the space business, a great wealth of data and experience would be lost that helped create the international space station, the shuttle and many other major space programs. When AeroAstro closes we will have lost a significant part of our ability to create much-lower-cost, more-responsive and more-efficient small spacecraft. One could debate which capability will be most needed over the next decade, but it should be clear that a healthy and robust space program needs both types of organizations and needs them to flourish.
At the 2011 Reinventing Space Conference, I challenged the U.S. government to create, within three years, a responsive, low-cost space environment with at least five U.S. companies building space systems comparable to or better than those built by Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd. (SSTL) of Britain.
It’s now halfway though our challenge period; SSTL has opened SST-U.S., and we’re one down from where we were with AeroAstro closing. If we continue to ignore the need to strongly and actively support small space system builders, we will need to start relishing warm beer with fish and chips to safeguard our troops and advance our science.
Lastly, we all owe Rick Fleeter and all of those at AeroAstro a truly heartfelt thank you for what they have accomplished and their leadership along the way. Closing AeroAstro is a loss to the community. They will truly be missed.