WASHINGTON — Industry advocates are voicing concern with U.S. President Barack Obama’s decision to cancel NASA’s Moon-bound Constellation program and the threat it poses to America’s aerospace work force and U.S. strategic missile arsenals, but Defense Department officials said the two agencies are forging a plan to sustain the nation’s solid-rocket motor industrial base.
Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah) is among those railing against Obama’s proposal to scrap NASA’s plan to replace its space shuttle fleet with new rockets and spacecraft in favor of relying on commercial crew taxis to get astronauts to the international space station and back.
“This is not money-saving. This is having some kind of half-baked scheme that we can commercialize this,” said Bishop, whose district is home to ATK Space Systems, the Magna, Utah-based solid-rocket motor manufacturer that is building the first stage of Constellation’s Ares 1 rocket and major subsystems for its launch abort system. ATK executives told investors Feb. 4 that canceling Ares 1 would cost the company $650 million in contract backlog.
While Bishop’s congressional district stands to lose 2,000 jobs under Obama’s proposal, the outspoken U.S. missile defense proponent said there is more at stake than northern Utah’s employment outlook. Shutting down Constellation, he said, threatens the nation’s ability to produce solid-rocket motors needed for ballistic missiles.
“It’s not a spigot you can turn on and off,” Bishop said in a Feb. 9 interview. “Once they’re out the door and in the unemployment lines, they’re not coming back.”
ATK and Sacramento, Calif.-based Aerojet are the only U.S. companies producing large solid-rocket motors for space launchers and strategic missiles.
Gary Payton, a retired military astronaut and former senior NASA official who serves as U.S. Air Force deputy under secretary for space programs, told reporters Feb. 4 the service was still assessing the industrial base impacts of canceling Constellation.
“We share an industrial base with NASA — on solids, liquids, range infrastructure and a work force,” he said during a media roundtable here organized by the Space Foundation. “So, with the cancellation of the Constellation program … we have got a lot of work to do with NASA to figure out how to maintain a minimum industrial base on liquid-rocket engines and solid-rocket motors.”
NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver told Space News following a Feb. 11 presentation at the Federal Aviation Administration’s 13th Annual Commercial Space Transportation Conference here that NASA Administrator Charles Bolden consulted senior Pentagon officials, including Deputy Defense Secretary William Lynn and Pentagon acquisition chief Ashton Carter, about the industrial base ramifications of canceling Constellation.
“Very senior discussions were held over the last six months between NASA and [the Defense Department] on this topic, so it is not something that was not discussed,” Garver said.
Addressing the same conference, Air Force Gen. Robert Kehler, commander of Air Force Space Command in Colorado Springs, Colo., said NASA’s new direction could have both positive and negative impacts on his command.
“Number one, there’s an impact on us in terms of the manufacture of solid-rocket motors and engines and things like that we’ll have to go sort our way through as we understand more clearly what this all means,” Kehler told conference attendees via telephone from his office at Peterson Air Force Base.
Kehler said the president’s decision to do away with Constellation and foster new commercial space transportation services presents both opportunities and challenges for the Air Force.
“I’m not a glass-half-empty kind of guy on this one,” he said. “I think we’ve got some opportunity there to go work together with NASA and commercial to make sure that we are preserving the essential pieces of the industrial base we have to go preserve.”
Kehler said that while the U.S. need for solid-
rocket boosters is unlikely to return to Cold War levels, the Defense Department is looking at a concept for maintaining a “family of motors” for use by the Air Force, Navy, Missile Defense Agency and others. He said the Pentagon included money it its 2010 and 2011 budget request to fund a “very, very low rate of production” of Air Force Minuteman rocket motor casings and propellant.
The Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics is expected to complete by June a congressionally mandated plan for sustaining the U.S. solid-rocket motor industrial base, Pentagon spokeswoman Cheryl Irwin told Space News Feb. 5. NASA, she said, is part of the joint working group the Pentagon recently established to tackle the issue.
Marion Blakey, president of the Aerospace Industries Association (AIA) here, praised the Obama administration for seeking a budget increase for NASA and pledging to continue flying the international space station through 2020. But she also is concerned that terminating Constellation would jeopardize the nation’s skilled aerospace labor force.
“Although investment in commercial space will create new opportunities, we are concerned that the cancellation of the Constellation program may have a lasting impact on our workforce and the unique skills they bring to our industrial base,” Blakey said in a Feb. 3 statement.
Two months before Obama’s $19 billion NASA spending request went to Congress as part of the president’s 2011 budget, Blakey made a similar appeal to Peter Marquez, the White House National Security Council’s director of space policy. Marquez is leading an interagency review of national space policy that could culminate this year in a new strategy governing U.S. civil and military space activities.
Blakey wrote Marquez Dec. 8 urging the creation of a single entity to manage national space strategy, one that could link “policy with needs, programs and resources.” She also cautioned against taking actions that would harm the U.S. aerospace industrial base, according to the letter, a copy of which was obtained by Space News.
“The design and development of complex space systems is critically dependent on the quality of [the] workforce, and current and future personnel shortages are a vital concern that must be addressed by government as it seeks to build new space capabilities and maintain existing ones,” wrote Blakey, whose organization represents 300 U.S. manufacturers and 680,000 aerospace workers. “AIA recommends that U.S. policy continue to support our current workforce, and make it a national priority to ensure aerospace productivity in the future by including workforce and industrial base health as considerations in the national space strategy.”
During her presentation at the Federal Aviation Administration’s Commercial Space Transportation Conference, Garver said NASA’s budget proposal augers well for job creation. “The nation that is the world’s leader in commercial space will capture the lion’s share of new jobs in the future. And indeed commercial space is where the real job growth opportunity lies,” she said. “So when we talk about jobs, we do realize that although there will be displacements … there will be an increased number of jobs due to our increased budget. But longer term is where the real payoff in this budget takes place.”
Bolden, speaking Feb. 6 to reporters at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, Fla., said he would encourage private space firms to utilize existing labor and infrastructure in Florida in an effort to retain some of NASA’s skilled workers.