OpEd: Reaffirming U.S. Leadership in Space

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  Space News Business

OpEd: Reaffirming U.S. Leadership in Space

By JIM ALBAUGH

posted: 27 May 2008
02:02 pm ET





The accomplishments in space so far this year
are quite revealing. Space Shuttle Endeavour launched March 11
carrying a crew of seven astronauts that – in addition to six Americans – included a Japanese astronaut.

 

In the payload bay was a Japanese logistics module and a Canadian robot on the way to the international space station, where an American, a Russian and a European astronaut waited.

 

The European-built Jules Verne ATV [Automated Transfer Vehicle] was racing toward its rendezvous with the
station after being launched on an Ariane 5 from French Guiana.

 

Down on the equator a U.S., Russian, Ukrainian, Norwegian joint venture launched a U.S.-built satellite from Sea Launch.

 

Work continued on a private space venture to send space tourists on a sub
orbital ride,
�courtesy of a private company bankrolled by a British airline mogul.

 

Meanwhile, some 200,000 Chinese space workers labor diligently on a fledgling space program that
already has had success in placing their own heroes into orbit with sights set on the
Moon.

 

And space engineers in India are busily preparing to launch a scientific payload on one of their boosters later this summer.

As you can see just from this short snapshot in time, space is now truly international.

 

All of this has been going on
�while Congress debates a budget that will determine how long a gap we will have in our ability to get U.S. astronauts to low Earth orbit.

 

With the great contributions our international partners are making, should we be worried about U.S. leadership in
space? Yes.

 

Why? Well,
I do know enough about sports to say that second-place teams rarely inspire anyone. And unlike some “also-ran” sports teams, we can’t afford the so-called “rebuilding” years of our space capability.

 

The next decade must be about re-affirming our leadership role in space.

 

Leadership Through Innovation

 

We can be a leader. And we should.

 

But to do so will require fundamental changes in the way we position ourselves as an industry
�and as partners with government. We must rethink how the space industry can best anticipate and meet the requirements of our military, civil and commercial customers.

 

Ours was an industry that was built on great ideas and new approaches. From the Wright Brothers
�to the late Robert Jastrow
�to Neil Armstrong’s walk on the
Moon,
our industry was the most innovative on
Earth. Leaders like James McDonnell,
Jack Northrop,
Howard Hughes
and

Dutch Kindleberger
�literally changed the world.

 

The work these men did in evolving airplanes from fabric-covered biplanes
�to metal-skinned long-range military aircraft
�to jets and supersonic flight
�laid the foundation of innovation,
�engineering
�and manufacturing
�that enabled us to go to and exploit space.

 

Over the past 50 years,
we have linked the entire world through satellite communications;
developed technologies
�that made our “vision” sharper,
�our “hearing” more acute,
�and our “voices” clearer and more effective through
global situational awareness
�and ubiquitous communications;

and
�enhanced our ability to understand the planet
through
Earth observation satellites.

But
what are the innovations that will allow us to take that next big leap forward? Why aren’t we investing in high-risk, high-payoff research and technology? And where are the innovators of our time? I fear they are not working in our industry, but in
businesses that reward them for their innovations and ideas,
�not just for their years of service.

 

Like it or not, the current space industry is largely a mix of thinly capitalized new starts,
�struggling satellite manufacturers
�and traditional aerospace companies that must rely on government to take the lead in funding research and technology.

 

Ours is an industry where the big companies have become more and more risk-averse,
�scrutinized by shareholders and market watchers who can be harsh judges,
�and where long-term visions succumb to short-term profits.

 

In government, lean budgets and other priorities understandably condition policymakers to shy away from funding high-risk research and development. And sadly, the business case for industry investing in high-risk technology without well-understood applications and returns has never closed. So how can we and government meet halfway?

 

Our industry must choose between being incrementalists, content to simply use the same old technologies to get into low Earth orbit, or becoming innovators, creating the next quantum leap that will mark the dawn of a whole new era in space.

Commitment to Innovation

 

Innovations in aerospace defined the 20th
century by forever changing our society:

the way we protect freedom and democracy;

communicate;

travel and experience the world;
�and how
we look at our universe.

 

Aerospace can define the 21st
century, if we transform the industry to inspire innovation by
investing robustly
in research and technology.

 

At its peak during the Apollo program, NASA’s allocation was some
4 percent of the federal budget. Today, it is a fraction of that. Back
when engineers worked to bring back the crippled Apollo 13, Gene Kranz declared: “Failure is not an option.” With today’s budget realities, that kind of funding is not an option.

 

So how do we achieve the high-risk breakthrough innovations of the future? We must begin with identifying the enabling technologies that will – with commitment and an openness to big ideas – let us take the next big steps.

In my view, propulsion is the great enabler. We must reduce the cost and increase the efficiency of space propulsion. Our propulsion technology has not progressed much since Robert Goddard was launching rockets in New Mexico in the 1930s. Since the development of the Space Shuttle Main Engine in the 1970s, there has been only one large liquid propulsion engine developed in this country – the RS-68.

 

Where are the new technologies? Who is investing,
and at what level? In developing the next generation of satellites, what will we do to provide orders of magnitude improvements in efficiency and weight reductions? Identifying and focusing on these enabling technologies – and others – will depend on an enduring partnership between industry and government.

 

A Challenging Budget Environment

 

And speaking of the nexus of government and industry, and of civil and commercial space, NASA Administrator
Mike Griffin and his
team have been doing an outstanding job making room for both
big
aerospace and commercial entrepreneurs in future space endeavors. I applaud what he said
in January as he discussed the Constellation project and returning to the
Moon:
�”The development and exploitation of space has, so far, been accomplished in a fashion that can be described as ‘all government, all the time.’
That’s not the way the American frontier was developed.
�It’s not the way this country developed aviation.
It’s not the way the rest of our economy works,
�and it ought not to be good enough for space, either.”

 

When it comes to innovation we need to be thinking about what is good enough for space and forge the partnerships, set the goals and make the investment needed to get there.

Behind the Wheel or in the Back Seat?

 

In space – especially in the last two decades – our international partners have done remarkable things.

 

And as so often happens in the business world,
�yesterday’s partners become today’s competitors. And also like the business world you have to be worried about the threat of that new guy who just opened up a shop down the street. Here, of course, I’m talking about China and India.

 

For 50
years we have led the way. Sputnik caught us by surprise, yet we responded, and look at all that we accomplished.

Today we have ample warning. We can clearly see our international competitors fast approaching in the rear view mirror
– and objects are larger than they seem! This is not the time to take a back seat. If we do, the consequences will be non-recoverable and future generations will judge us harshly.

 

We are embarking on what I would call the most crucial decade for our space program since that first decade 50
�years ago. What is at stake is nothing less than our place on the world stage. It’s about our nation’s ability to lead and not to follow.

 

We must maintain our technology leadership position in space
�as we send men and women back to the
Moon and beyond,
as we further connect our world and understand it better,
and as we protect our country by enhancing our space-based ability to watch and warn, protect and respond.

 

In space exploration we must not allow the space gap after the shuttle’s retirement
to grow longer than current projections.

 

In military space we must not lose our edge in protecting space-based assets or responding to threats from space.

In commercial space we must always offer the world technology that keeps our commercial satellite companies robust and competitive.

 

We must stay the course with our current space exploration policy. That support needs to be continued through long-term commitment by elected officials, industry and the public.

 

Let’s remember that
space is not a political issue;

it never has been. Regardless of who you support politically we need to show our support for the current policy.

 

We have a good architecture to replace the
shuttle and return to the
Moon. We must all remain solidly behind it. And we must be committed to it long
term. Changing it incrementally or as a whole is the worst thing we could do.

Put simply,
to retain our leadership we must:

 

– Keep our space programs healthy, relevant and politically viable.

 

– Make innovation a national priority and ensure meaningful levels of federal funding.

 

– Develop a highly skilled space work force.

 

– And promote an educated generation that embraces math, science and the promise of space.

 

Space is a great enabler. It’s strategic for our country and for all mankind. And the United States
�must be a leader.

 

Jim Albaugh is president and chief executive officer of Boeing Integrated Defense Systems. The commentary above is based on his April 8 speech at the National Space Symposium in Colorado Springs, Colo.