The launch of Sputnik by the Soviet Union 50 years ago Oct. 4 galvanized the way the U.S. government and industry work together. That single event was the catalyst for a push to improve education, technological innovation
and leading-edge capabilities for space exploration and national security.
Our progress in space over the past five decades is undeniable and incredible, and those achievements were driven by the concerted political, technological and economic will of the day.
The pioneering spirit of the last five decades produced astounding developments: the Mercury capsule and the Redstone rocket that propelled it; the Gemini and Apollo spacecraft, the lunar rover and the Saturn 5 that took us to the
Moon; the Titan, and Atlas rockets – two of which remain today’s workhorses of the industry; missiles, launchers and payloads that play a vital role in the defense of our nation; the space shuttle and the international space station; and the two intrepid
rovers making their way across Mars, to name just a few.
Those achievements were the result of a government-industry partnership forged by the times with a shared purpose and a common goal. It was a time when space was the national priority that provided the country with a sense of pride, national security and global leadership.
And it was driven by government infrastructure and funding. We were challenged to apply emerging aerospace and computing technologies and harness our pioneering spirit to launch the United States on a path of discovery and progress.
At the time, President John F. Kennedy committed America to landing a person on the
Moon before the end of the decade – and returning him safely to Earth. He told the nation: “Surely the opening vistas of space promise high costs and hardships as well as high rewards. But Man in his quest for knowledge and progress is determined and cannot be deterred. For the eyes of the world now look into space, to the moon and to the planets beyond.”
Challenges and Great Promise
Today, while that sense of shared mission still exists, we find ourselves at a crossroads.
Space is losing its footing as a national priority because we have many national priorities: the global war on terror, securing our borders, health care and many other competing domestic priorities, all of which are important, but all of which contribute to a fragmented national vision.
The political, technical and economic forces that came together to propel our country into space 50 years ago are not focused today as they were then. Economically, today’s federal budget is a tightrope to be walked between the need to fund the global war on terror and supplying our troops who are in harm’s way – and wanting to fund the next generation of communications and reconnaissance satellites as well as our manned and unmanned exploration programs.
Consider that as the nation sped toward our goal of sending man to the
Moon, our federal budget for space grew from $500 million a year in 1960 to $5.2 billion in 1965. That
year spending on space reached approximately 5 percent of federal spending – a striking example of the commitment we made to space as a nation.
Today, the administration’s budget request for NASA of $17.8 billion means that the space agency’s share of the federal budget will remain less than 1 percent.
Of course, government alone cannot carry the entire burden of developing what is needed to guarantee our future in space. That is why an evolved business model is needed to attract risk capital.
Seeing the rise of a private space industry is encouraging, and I give credit to Elon Musk at Space Exploration Technologies Corp.
and the other private space pioneers of today who are developing space vehicles and encouraging space tourism – unheard of developments even a decade ago.
The Commission on the Future of the U.S. Aerospace Industry was correct when it said “the breakdown of America’s intellectual and industrial capacity is a threat to national security and our capability to continue as a world leader.”
The solution is clear
Today’s challenges are clear, and so is the solution.
Today, we need to strengthen the public/private partnership that has existed for 50 years.
We need to continue to support Space Investment Summits that will provide seed money and early
stage investors to entrepreneurs who have a vision and an executable business plan.
Industry needs to join with NASA and others to build international and commercial dimensions into space exploration. Government will always have a large role in the continued development of civil, commercial and military uses of space. Just as a bridge or a highway is best built by a government, so is the infrastructure necessary to utilize space. The test will be to attract new risk capital beyond government funding.
While we cannot
determine what the future holds we do know a few things. NASA is committed to the Vision for Space Exploration – and industry
clearly has responded with spirited competitions for this next generation of manned spaceflight. You cannot
do anything without a vision, especially in this industry – and it’s great to see a reinvigorated NASA pursue this next phase of exploration.
We also are looking as a nation at space superiority solutions as well as smaller, yet more powerful satellites for a variety of civil, military and commercial solutions. These satellites will expand our on-orbit capabilities in the areas of global positioning, surveillance and reconnaissance, Earth observation and communications.
From a technology standpoint, we have started down the road to network-enable our warfighter – and the everyday citizen. And the requirements to keep pushing net-enabling technology forward will not stop nor should they because network-enabling our warfighters will help to protect and secure our homeland.
People have become used to living in a more network-centric world
with information at their fingertips. The need for more meaningful, timely information will not go away and space plays a significant role in making that information ubiquitous for the net-enabled future.
So what is needed for all that – space superiority solutions, advances in satellite technology, net-enabling our warfighter – to happen? Clearly, space must be a national priority.
The government must fund its current-day priorities while ensuring that there is budget for the long-term space needs, especially those that create infrastructure that can be utilized by the private sector. More technical breakthroughs are on the horizon – but they will require that we inspire our youth to pursue science and engineering educations.
The work-force challenge
One of my favorite movies is “October Sky.” It illustrates the
excitement of youth launching rockets, which was a true story about a man who became a NASA engineer. How many boys and girls today are interested in space technology and are excited about exploration and discovery? Who or where are the dreamers, the innovators
and the leaders of tomorrow? Clearly, the people-side of our industry faces significant challenges.
In 1989, 1.3 million people were in aerospace – the high-water mark for industry employment. In 2005, it was about half that number.
The aging of the aerospace work force has long been discussed, but we’re now at the point where we can really see the impact, with about 27 percent of aerospace workers eligible for retirement by the end of this year. Who will replace them?
Perhaps most disturbing is a survey done by the Aerospace Commission that asked 500 U.S. aerospace workers whether they would recommend pursuing aerospace careers to their children. Eighty percent said they would not because of workplace instability.
We must ensure that a new generation of talented, highly skilled aerospace workers is ready to take up the challenge of this industry. All of us hold the vision for the next 50 years in space. And we must support every opportunity to educate and to inspire our youth to once again dream about visiting foreign planets and the outer reaches of space.
We want young people to challenge and exceed the boundaries we know today and to experience the awesome sight and sound of a space shuttle liftoff or the Ares 1 rocket taking man back to the
No Turning Back
Satellite television and radio beam content into millions of homes. Many of us use GPS devices to give us directions. We all benefit from the improved weather forecasts and storm predictions that satellites provide. Our warfighters – and our homeland – are more protected and have more real-time situational awareness because of sensors in the sky.
And finally, we have explored. From Viking to the Mars Exploration Rovers and from Apollo to Endeavour, we have extended the reach of mankind. Through manned and unmanned exploration. We have gone beyond the boundaries of our solar system with the Voyager spacecraft, which
now are enjoying their 30th year of flight and exploration.
And in the process of these five decades of exploration, as we learned more about our planet, our solar system and our universe, we also discovered just how much we still have to learn.
For all of the progress of the past 50 years, the reality is that there is no alternative to our path forward. We must inspire the youth of today that the heavens offer the greatest adventure they can have. We must foster innovation, push technological boundaries, and secure our legacy for decades to come as the world’s leader in space exploration and development.
Astronaut Michael Collins said that “it’s human nature to stretch, to go, to see, to understand. Exploration is not a choice, it’s an imperative.”
Our imperative today is to have a multi-pronged approach – political, technical and economic – that will inspire the next-generation of pioneers to once again do great things in space to innovate, discover and create opportunities that no one today
even can predict.
Together we must have the vision, the will
and the desire to direct our collective energies to ensure peace, prosperity and a future that offers the best that our imagination and innovation have to offer.
Roger A. Krone is president of Boeing Network and Space Systems. This commentary is adapted from his keynote remarks Sept. 18 in Long Beach, Calif., at the AIAA Space 2007 conference and exhibition.