Maintaining U.S. Propulsion Capabilities Amid Uncertainty

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While Washington is immersed in the details of the 2012 federal budget, our government/industry/academic rocket propulsion base faces several systemic issues that have been simmering for years.

Thomas D. Taverney touched on some of these issues in his recent commentary for Space News [“For a Truly National Launch Policy,” Sept. 12, page 19]. He concludes that the U.S. government should develop a national launch strategy in which the Defense Department and NASA collaborate on an approach that reduces launch costs, supports the launch industrial base, and keeps the United States a leader in space transportation.

Taverney’s concern is widely shared in the propulsion community, which is struggling with funding, work force, infrastructure, sustainment and strategic issues. In fact, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden recently signed a letter of intent to establish the National Institute for Rocket Propulsion Systems in an effort to comprehensively address those issues, which have significant national security and economic implications.

Numerous trade and independent studies have documented the erosion of our rocket propulsion capabilities and the challenges to sustaining them. Downsizing, mergers, consolidations and increasing competition from foreign launch competitors over the last 30 years have weakened the propulsion industrial base. The economic climate, concern about the national debt, a shortage of new liquid and solid propulsion programs, and the end of the space shuttle and Constellation programs have put even greater pressure on space programs and propulsion technology development.

While the average age of a propulsion engineer is rising, ongoing instability and uncertainty in the rocket propulsion community discourage students from pursuing careers in the field due to the risk of layoff and shortage of long-term career opportunities. The time needed to develop an experienced propulsion engineer results in an experience gap that is difficult to recover from quickly.

Amid these difficulties, several new, entrepreneurial companies are trying to establish a business base and offer themselves as viable competitors to more established companies and aggressive foreign competitors.

A 2009 study by the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy examined the U.S. industrial base capacity to develop and produce engines for space launch vehicles. It concluded that the industrial base had enough capacity to meet current government and commercial space requirements.

However, the report warned about the potential long-term risk related to supplier retention and quality, work force retention, and insufficient opportunities for the work force to learn and maintain its skills. It also noted that the long-term requirements of the government and commercial space sectors aren’t enough to drive significant private sector investment in new propulsion capabilities and technologies.

These factors raise important issues about our ability to reduce costs and improve performance, as well as attract new talent, the report stated.

“Both sets of challenges are potentially significant and appear to warrant further analysis and review on the part of involved U.S. Government agencies and the U.S. private sector as the nation considers how best to sustain and ultimately advance this important technology area that is vital for maintaining access to space,” the report concluded.

The National Space Policy directs departments and agencies to collaborate “to strengthen our ability to achieve national goals, identify desired outcomes, leverage U.S. capabilities, and develop implementation and response strategies.” Despite that guidance, the propulsion community has gone in separate directions, as Taverney observes.

The community generally agrees on the challenges it is facing, and independent efforts to approach a solution. However, roadmaps and acquisition strategies to date across agencies and departments are not always mutually reinforcing. Several existing organizations possess expertise in segments of the nation’s propulsion community, but none has a comprehensive, integrated view of industry, the user community, technology and related policy issues.

What’s needed is a single entity to monitor and steward the development and sustainment of rocket propulsion systems, support technology development and insertion, and go beyond the standard “think tank” role of such an organization by being a solutions facilitator.

The National Institute for Rocket Propulsion Systems will be that entity, helping to ensure the long-term sustainability of U.S. rocket propulsion capabilities, reduce costs and support the nation’s skilled propulsion work force.

The institute can steward U.S. propulsion capability by monitoring the technical progress, economic health, policy status and work force of the domestic propulsion base and by providing inputs to policymakers that ensure its long-term health. As an impartial entity, it would assess the immediate and long-term outcomes of particular courses of action rather than advocate for them.

In support of technology development, the institute can direct developers to existing studies, test facilities or experts, or serve as sponsor for taking a new technology from the theoretical to the practical.

As a solutions facilitator, the institute can connect individuals or organizations working on similar technology challenges, promoting teaming agreements or simple purchase. It can connect technical teams with technical services or facilities. An important role will be to save developers the need to create or maintain in-house capabilities of their own.

NASA has been working for several months to lay the groundwork for the institute, which will be located at Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., close to several major government propulsion customers and aerospace companies. Dale Thomas, associate center director-technical at Marshall, is leading this effort.

Officials in government, industry and academia have been briefed, and several planning partners in those sectors are engaged. The institute will be a small organization, supported by its government partners, consulting with industry and drawing on outside expertise as needed to provide data or help find solutions. Collaboration among all members of the rocket propulsion community will be critical to its success.

Much work remains to be done. But we must not wait any longer to seek solutions that will preserve and advance the government and industry investment this nation has made in rocket propulsion.

 

Robert Lightfoot is director of NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala.