Marc Johansen, President, National Space Club

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The National Space Club was founded in 1957 following the launch of the Soviet Union’s Sputnik satellite to promote U.S. pre-eminence in space, mainly by facilitating government-industry interaction through events such as the Goddard Memorial Dinner, referred to informally these days as the “space prom.”

In recent years the club has expanded its focus to emphasize education in science, technology, engineering and mathematics — the so-called STEM disciplines — which Marc Johansen says is the key to fulfilling the original mission. The organization’s educational fundraising efforts cleared the $100,000 mark for the first time this year.

Raised through the Goddard Dinner, membership dues and member contributions, the money goes toward college scholarships and high school internships at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., and Wallops Flight Facility on Virginia’s Eastern Shore. This year’s winner of the club’s grand prize, the $10,000 Goddard Memorial Scholarship, is University of North Dakota master’s degree candidate Svetlana Shkolyar.

Johansen, whose day job is vice president of intelligence, information and cyber systems at Boeing Government Operations, spoke recently with Space News Editor Warren Ferster.

Has there been any thought given to modifying your charter given that space, especially on the civil side, is increasingly an international cooperative enterprise?

We have thought about that because after all we do have members who are global — Inmarsat, for example. So we are open to global companies, the Inmarsats, the Intelsats, the SESs; they all have their incorporated U.S. branches, so in some way it’s almost moot because we offer membership to those companies. But I think that really ingrained in our charter is working with the U.S. space program and advocating and ensuring that it’s pre-eminent. Now what is the U.S. space program exactly these days? After all, we want the Russians to be very successful in launching Soyuz.

Is U.S. leadership in space slipping?

I still think we have the best military systems and we have the best launch systems. We’ve launched for 10 years in the military sector without a problem. But on the commercial side it’s a real close competition. The Europeans and others are building very good products. Where you can make revenue, the commercial communications satellites, it’s certainly a close competition.

What about on the civil side?

I would say we have a lead, but I’m hoping we don’t lose it. We’re concerned about what’s going on right now, the challenges and what is the future of NASA just like Charlie Bolden is, and he talked about it at our luncheon.

What are the implications of the extended state of uncertainty for the U.S. human spaceflight program?

The issue is the longer you delay making a decision the longer it’s going to take for you to develop the systems you need to go ahead and regain manned access to space. It takes a while. The biggest challenge is reliability. You’re not going to just be able to develop a new rocket system and then get to your .9999 reliability percentile that’s required to launch humans into space. So we have a major challenge. I’m hopeful that our leadership is going to pick that up and run with it, but it’s not going to be cheap and it’s not going to be easy.

Do you honestly believe China is getting into position to challenge U.S. leadership in space?

It’s going to take a while. But if we sit on our laurels, they’ll eventually catch up. China has a lot of their own issues; they have a huge population and their middle class is growing, so where do they put their resources? But they also have a centralized government, and a centralized government can decide where they’re going to move resources much easier than perhaps our system can. But I think we really need to respect China and their capabilities and hopefully we can make them an international partner.

The U.S. government space sector has seen downward spending cycles before. Is there something different about the current one?

There’s a difference now because of the huge deficit that we’re carrying. I think we’re in unprecedented territory and something’s got to give. Your discretionary spending accounts include space programs, unfortunately. So the challenge is to convince decision makers that space programs are important enough to the future of the United States that we don’t leave them lagging or that we don’t cut further from them. Decision makers are being forced to level things out and avoid growth. So then it comes down to our decision makers in the military and at NASA: What are the most important programs, which ones should go forward and which ones can be put on the shelf? It’s tough, because we as space cadets want everything.

How has the mission of the National Space Club evolved over the years?

The initial focus was to get government and industry working closely — this was a professional organization that would focus on the pre-eminence of the U.S. space program. They didn’t even have STEM back then, or at least not the term, but through the years what we’ve done is maintain that advocacy role and then moved big time into what we think is the foundation of being able to meet this requirement. And that would be the education of our young men and women to ensure that we have the engineers and scientists that we need to ensure that we maintain what you could almost say is a thin lead right now in space programs.

Does your organization do any lobbying?

We do meet with folks on Capitol Hill occasionally and we certainly bring the staff and members into the venues that we have including the dinner and various lunches, and we essentially are just advocating the overall U.S. space program. If you’re getting into details such as should NASA have more funding, or should you do something specific with a certain Defense Department program, we do not do that.

How do you find scholarship candidates?

We’ve been working with the NASA education office as well as the Goddard Space Flight Center education office to find out where grants are going — which colleges really have a robust space science or engineering curriculum that they know about. So we’ve been piggybacking on that and we’re working with the professors and they’re actually submitting some of their students and we pick a grand winner.

Now that you’ve topped the $100,000 fundraising mark, are you expanding the internship program?

We have upped the ante to 35 interns this year. So within the last three years we’ve gone from 27 to 35; we have seven students going to Wallops, and 28 going to Goddard.

How does the internship program work?

We give high school students a stipend of $1,800 and they work at NASA for six weeks with a mentor. We find a professor, a program manager, a deputy program manager, an engineer, whatever, over at Goddard or Wallops to work directly with the student so they get hands-on experience. We don’t want somebody going in there and doing administrative work. We want them in the labs working on the satellites or whatever is going on actively and then getting a better idea of what they could do in the future and what they should be pursuing.

Are you looking to expand your educational program?

We used to not have students at Wallops and now we have seven. We have down at Cape Canaveral, Fla., an affiliated space club; they don’t have a formal charter with us. It’s a pretty robust club and we would like to partner with them and start an internship working with NASA at Kennedy Space Center. Huntsville, Ala., has another loosely affiliated club, and we would like to start an internship program there at Marshall Space Flight Center as well.

Is your membership growing, shrinking or static?

It’s growing actually. We’ve gone from about 40 companies to probably about 48 right now in the last two years.

 

That’s surprising given all the consolidation we’ve seen in the space industry and the U.S. federal budget outlook.

We’ve been very fortunate that there are a lot of new entrepreneurial companies that are entering the market on the space side. You can look at NASA and their whole idea on space launch and so there are quite a few small companies that are joining. When it comes to the larger companies, we pretty much have a very solid club membership. We haven’t run into any issues at this point with anybody leaving.

One of the big concerns these days is there’s very little budget for space-related research and development. What are the implications with respect to your mission?

That is really a problem because that gets back to part of our main charter which is STEM and bringing these young men and women into the space industry or into government working in space. You have to have some robust research and development because that’s where most of these folks start. But once again that’s a dilemma. You’ve got to produce what you’re under contract to produce or you’ve got to pay for it if you’re the government customer. How do you ensure that there’s still enough — 2 to 3 percent overall is what they usually look at — for basic research and development?