Executive Director of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics
or someone with such a distinguished career in military space, Bob Dickman’s office at the Reston, Va., headquarters of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) is surprisingly sparse when it comes to the usual collection of rocket and spacecraft models, plaques and other trappings of a career in the space businesss. Fitting perhaps for someone known for being plain spoken, down to Earth and direct.
He commanded the 45th Space Wing at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla., where he led more than 12,000 people from 1993-1995. When he retired from the Air Force in 2000, he was the top uniformed space official and senior military officer at the National Reconnaissance Office. In 2002 he was named deputy for military space in the office of the undersecretary of the Air Force.
Now he runs AIAA, a professional organization with 36,000 members from around the world, who have in common their commitment to the highest science and engineering standards. In Dickman’s terms, AIAA is the “American Medical Association for aerospace professionals.”
office he has occupied since becoming executive director in February 2005 also lacks an ego wall lined with photos and other memorabilia from a long career in space.
There are framed copies of two separate issues of Colliers magazine – March and October 1952 – featuring articles about space, including some by Werner Von Braun.
There also is a commemorative plaque from his time as commander of the 45th Space Wing with some colorful language about how much Dickman was likely to enjoy being told what to do by Pentagon policymakers. He spoke recently with Space News staff writer Colin Clark about his passion for the space business and his genuine concerns about its future.
NASA’s budget seems stretched to the limit. Can it actually execute the vision for space exploration over the next couple of years with the budget it has?
is more than stretched;
they’re just terribly under
funded. Rather than being funded at a fraction of a percent, if they were funded at a percent of the budget, they’d still be stretched. We are not doing the work we should be doing in basic aeronautical research and development. We’re not doing the right kinds of things for education. We’re not doing the right kinds of things for life sciences. We’re not doing the right kinds of things for space sciences. We’re not doing the right kinds of things for solar science. And we’re not going to be able to succeed at the exploration program with the budget we’ve got.
For example, the Crew Exploration Vehicle (CEV), because of budget limitations, is designed to go to the
Moon, perhaps beyond, but at least to the
Moon. Well, it’s terribly oversized to go to the [international space]
station. So we buy ourselves this gap in
being able to get people to station where, with a relatively small increase in the budget, we could do a different capsule, use Elon Musk’s Dragon – or something else – to reduce that gap.
Have you made that pitch on Capitol Hill?
We do an annual congressional visits day. We make that case to probably 150 offices. I have personally met with members on the Hill and made that case.
You mentioned Elon Musk’s efforts. Operationally Responsive Space (ORS) has been a huge topic of conversation in the military and intelligence communities. How will ORS be built into the existing architecture? Or does it become the next architecture?
It’s the next architecture and it’s not going to be a sole architecture. There are some things that you just need big satellites to do. When you’re collecting photons, you need big apertures. So I don’t think it’s either an ORS architecture or a traditional spacecraft architecture alone. There are a lot of things we can be doing with that ORS class vehicle. And ORS is a chicken and an egg.
You want a launch vehicle that is responsive and you want a launch vehicle that is inexpensive enough to launch often so your military people can use it, they can train with it, can exercise with it, but you also have to have payloads that can be processed quickly.
You’ve been the space architect. What would be a sound approach and how do you convince the military to adopt that approach?
Well, it’s 10 years since I was the architect. When we looked at that problem we concluded the challenge was more on the spacecraft side than on the launch vehicle side. And I think even the work Elon Musk has done on Falcon 1, that Microcosm was doing and that other companies have done, shows you can make a substantial change in the responsiveness of the launch vehicle for relatively low cost.
Doing such changes
for the spacecraft, and then also having the spacecraft
be very useful, is a real challenge. It will require miniaturization
– perhaps the collective use of multiple spacecraft interacting with each other – all things that are hard to do.
From what you’ve seen of the various TacSat small satellite efforts, are we at least at the beginning of being on the right track?
We’re on a good beginning for experimentation. I don’t think we’re on a good beginning for yielding an operational system. The Air Force Space Advisory Board did a study last year and concluded that the things like doing space situational awareness, looking out into space, doing cataloguing and some space weather things are probably the only two missions that right now we have technology in hand to go and do with small satellites.
But we can do experimentation on a lot of other things, which is what the TacSats are doing. Growing that into a viable constellation that can be useful to the warfighter is a long process. It is five to 10 years out.
Rep. Ellen Tauscher (D-Calif.), chairwoman of the House Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee, recently said – again –
that she believes space acquisition is broken. Is it?
What is working and what is not?
The United States still builds by far the best space products across the board, with some limited exceptions, of anybody in the world. Is the Ariane 5 a great launch vehicle? Sure it is. Are there other niche areas where other countries do as well as we do? Sure there are. But across the board, we are way, way ahead of anybody else in terms of space capabilities. What really challenges us is the issue of requirements.
And it’s not just requirements creep. It’s the desire on the part of the program office to build the satellite that will be useful to the warfighter for decades and yet, at the same time, goes through a requirements process that specifies the requirements based on what we know today.
If you build a satellite based on only what we know today, you’re probably going to have very little utility 10 years from now. It is that ability of the spacecraft
that we’ve fielded over the years to be far more flexible than anything we ever envisioned that’s really been the strength of the space program. As we try to stretch the technology to do that, and don’t have management reserves in the acquisition process, we’re inviting failure. I think the biggest problem we have is that we don’t have management reserves.
Given that most of your members are engineers or scientists, what state would you say the U.S. aerospace engineering community is in now?
We’re at great risk. The community that came in during the Apollo era, not the people that built Apollo, but the people that came in during that era are going to be leaving the work force.
ne of the real risks that we have with NASA and the National Science Foundation not funding basic science and technology is that the graduate students that would have cut their teeth on aerospace projects as graduate students, as young post doctorates, have little work to do.
They are going on to do other things. And we’re not attracting the best and the brightest into the profession and that is unfortunate.