Taking Exploration To Higher Ground

In less than a month, NASA’s exploration initiative to return Americans to the

Moon will be four years old. Since the initiative was launched in 2004, the fundamental goal to advance U.S. scientific, security

and economic interests through a robust space exploration program

has been boldly pursued under NASA’s methodical but innovative direction.

The imaginative yet balanced approach to space exploration fostered under NASA Administrator

Mike Griffin

is evidenced by the agency’s goals for the next 10-15 years. The international space station is nearing completion and space shuttle flights have resumed even while NASA prepares for the shuttle’s 2010 retirement. Shuttle successors, the Orion spacecraft and Ares 1

and Ares 5 rockets, are in development. Beginning in 2014, these Constellation program vehicles will create the infrastructure to transport humans to the Moon, Mars and other future destinations.

Griffin firmly believes the greatest days in scientific discovery lie ahead of us, not behind us. In hindsight, we can see that the Apollo era galvanized the U.S. scientific, engineering

and industrial establishment to lead the world in space exploration. This was established by a broad invitation to our country’s industrial base to participate in such a challenging adventure. Many of those same companies went on to lead the nation’s aerospace manufacturing capabilities. After Apollo, that base was substantially consolidated – leaving NASA with fewer options and more risk. NASA’s current exploration agenda promotes a more inclusive, industry-wide approach that has increased public investment and support.

NASA has demonstrated farsightedness in awarding contracts on Ares 1 that build on heritage and allow the program to move forward more quickly while broadening advocacy across the nation. Work has begun on the Orion crew exploration vehicle and a successful competition for the Ares upper-stage rocket has been completed. In a few weeks, NASA will award a separate contract for the Ares instrument unit avionics. Separate contracts allow NASA to benefit from the dramatic technological advances in the electronics industry, and allow NASA to upgrade the design as technology continues to approve.

In a speech earlier this year, Griffin

referred to lessons learned after the Soviet Union’s success with Sputnik in 1957. “Sputnik was an almost unimaginable embarrassment for the United States … we felt that we were falling behind in our much-vaunted technical know-how and industrial capability.” But Griffin also acknowledged the silver lining of that experience for Americans: “We committed ourselves to the ideal that, as a nation, America must lead in space exploration.”

In 2008, NASA will celebrate 50 years of achievement. But as Griffin has said often, only 50 years. If the “best is yet to come,” NASA is on the right track. The agency’s slow and steady drumbeat is resonating with the American people, creating the necessary enthusiasm to ensure that our country remains a leader, not a follower, in space exploration.

Robert S. Walker


[Editor’s note: The author is chairman of the Washington lobbying firm Wexler & Walker and a former chairman of the House Science Committee.]

Learning Is Reciprocal

I was quite taken by Frank J. Centinello’s characterization of the aerospace industry as having become complacent and risk averse [“A Young Engineer’s Vision,” Dec. 3, page 19].

He must bear in mind, however, that this is a community that bears the scars of having been whipsawed by the vagaries of government procurement such as it is. Space programs have been rocked by everything from acquisition reform, the International Traffic in Arms Regulations

, changing requirements, funding instability, politicization, transformation

and now disruptive innovation. It’s no wonder aerospace engineers are a bit jaded these days and are prone to exercise “expectation management” when it comes to advising their proteges.

What I found remarkable about Mr. Centinello’s perspective was his fresh sense of energy, enthusiasm and vision – perhaps not unlike the perspective of his mentors when they were his age. My advice to him would be to not “throw out the baby with the bathwater.” Over the years, the space industry, like a guild, has compiled know-how and best practices, the integral of which some might consider “wisdom.” This is a persistent and enduring understanding of what it takes to successfully build and launch complex space systems. Wisdom, when heeded, is quite useful to a future engineer.

Reciprocally, senior engineers and program managers can learn a thing or two from a younger generation that considers the stakes to be the “survival of humanity.” When was the last time you considered your vocation a matter of human survival? Idealistic?Perhaps.Useful?Most certainly.

The combination of learned wisdom and youthful vision can have the powerful effect of moving us forward, building upon our mistakes rather than being doomed to repeat them. Neither philosophy can survive for long without the other. Alone, the former becomes stale and rigid while the latter becomes foolhardy and mistake-prone.

So I applaud Mr. Centinello, first of all, for seeking out the thoughts and opinions of his seniors. I also thank Mr. Centinello for reminding us of a time when we understood that we were part of something much, much greater than ourselves.

Patrick Almazar

Manassas, Va.