Rep. Jane Harman (D-Calif.)

Chair, Homeland Security Intelligence, Information Sharing and Terrorism Risk Assessment Subcommittee

U.S. Rep. Jane Harman calls her California district the satellite center of the universe and refers to herself as “Boeing’s mother” for the “tough love” she practices toward its Satellite Systems Division within her district’s boundaries in El Segundo.

Between El Segundo and Redondo Beach, the boundaries of Harman’s district encompass several major aerospace companies and the Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center. She keeps a watchful eye over them and views companies that move out of her district like children who have run away from home. She still is smarting over a decision by Elon Musk, the entrepreneurial chief of Space Exploration Technologies, to move from her district to nearby Hawthorne. “I don’t forgive him,” she says with a feigned pout. “Actually, I hate him.”

But it is Musk and other high-profile advocates of science and technology that Harman hopes will save the industry that supports her district. As aerospace engineers reach retirement, Harman’s district will feel the crunch if the United States fails to cultivate their replacements.

While she does not have definitive solutions to the problem, Harman is drawn to new ideas about working with America’s youth, such as Segway inventor Dean Kamen, who created a competition to get students to build robots and then compete in a sports event. Kamen, along with Musk and NASA Administrator Mike Griffin, will join Harman in her district for a Sept. 15 conference, “Seeking the Right Stuff: Revitalizing the Aerospace Work Force,” sponsored by the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics. Harman spoke to Space News staff writer Becky Iannotta Aug. 22 from her Capitol Hill office.

Why are you worried about the predicted aerospace work force shortage and what do you attribute the problem to?

This potential demographic cliff for employment is a looming catastrophe. Aerospace is an enormous economic engine for California – it is a bigger exporter than agriculture.

There are four areas that need to change. First, the congressional funding cycle is part of the problem. We fund in two-year or one-year increments. We put fences around things. We make it very difficult to plan programs. Second, the aerospace firms have merged to the point we are down to three big ones and they are much more bureaucratic and they much more resemble their customer, the Defense Department.

Third, we don’t have visionary leadership at the top to talk about how exciting space is. President John F. Kennedy’s call to put a man on the Moon in a decade was electrifying. Fourth, our education system is broken. That’s why Dean Kamen matters. He has found a way to take what kids are interested in and use it to lead them to careers in science.

What can be done?

Rep. Vern Ehlers (R-Mich.) and I added resolutions to the NASA and the Intelligence authorization bills calling on NASA and the Defense Department respectively to do all they can to entice young people to get involved in aerospace.

But this has to be a layered solution. Kids have to start dreaming again. A president can help there, as will changes in the way we teach science, technology and engineering to make math and science fun. We also need to encourage greater diversity such as getting women and minorities in the picture. Women are over 50 percent of the brain pool; I don’t understand why we don’t contribute much more.

We need much more stable long-term funding. When do we get it that if we really want to maintain our edge in space we have to have much longer procurement cycles and we can’t change our mind every 10 minutes? We can’t be so parochial that we only support the contractors in our district. Fortunately for me every contractor is in my district so I’m an equal opportunity supporter.

Which presidential candidate do you believe will provide visionary leadership you say is needed to attract young professionals to the industry?

I am a BarackObamasuperdelegate and he is very good at inspiring people. His space policy is getting better and better. But John McCain, too, is interested in these issues and surely gets it in terms of the tactical value of satellites for the warfighter. He knows those issues very well, but that’s not all space is about.

It’s not just funding; it is dreaming we’re talking about. Kids have dreams and one of those dreams has to be to explore the universe and to make certain that our space superiority is maintained. This is a huge national security objective. There are lots of ways this can happen but a visionary president would not be a bad start.

Did President George W. Bush’s Vision for Space Exploration, to return to the Moon by 2020 and on to Mars, fail to invigorate interest in space?

What was the vision? There’s plenty of blame to go around but a key axiom in politics is repetition, repetition, repetition, and if that is Bush’s vision, if he said it maybe once or twice in eight years, it blew by me. It was a very different thing when John Kennedy articulated his vision.

What role can industry play in attracting more people to the work force?

The big three aerospace companies are getting arthritic. They have got to come up with ways to make it attractive for young people to work there. I was blown away at a recent classified briefing on satellite programs. A 31-year-old kid with a major role in this program said all his peers were gone. All the people who had joined the company with him had left. You can’t blame all of that on the president, Congress and school systems. The workplace has some responsibility too.

Has California recovered from the Atlas and Delta launcher business moving to Alabama and Colorado?

California is doing well. The aerospace firms are healthy, a couple satellite programs are challenging their “mother,” but the technical side is very strong. The management side is what needs work. I talk regularly to my friends at the National Reconnaissance Office and they have the same point of view. It’s not a lack of talent, it’s just not an even distribution of talent, and when you do systems integration, the critical piece of that is management.

If your management skills aren’t tight enough, you screw up. We’ve had some painful lessons learned. But the work force numbers are still very strong. A bigger problem than layoffs is having no one at the entry level because people don’t want to do this work.

Do you think the United States is losing its technical superiority edge to China?

The Chinese anti-satellite test was not really predicted by our intelligence community and we still don’t really understand what the Chinese motivations were. Was that a signal to us or was that a signal to Taiwan? We don’t know. And we don’t know what their motivations are going forward. The Russians also are very skilled. This is not just a U.S. game and we have to think about defense and how we’re going to protect some of this stuff. You can’t harden a satellite once it’s up so we really have to build in protections, and there’s the whole ground system piece of it. There’s a lot of work to do.

How do you feel about relying on the Russians to transport U.S. astronauts to the international space station once the space shuttle is retired in 2010?

Although I am very concerned about Georgia and how that changes the whole dynamic, we have much more to gain from Russia as a friend than from Russia as an adversary. Russia has been a friend to space and that’s something we should continue to do.

Do you agree with commercial satellite industry representatives who say U.S. export regulations are hurting their business?

Congress has exceeded its competence on this. We’ve let ideology interfere with what seems to be even reasonableness in terms of protecting our cutting edge in satellite manufacturing. We’ve truly hurt the commercial satellite industry, especially in California.

The 1999 report [of the House Select Committee on U.S. National Security and Military/Commercial Concerns with the People’s Republic of China led by Reps. Christopher Cox (R-Calif.) and Norm Dicks (D-Wash.)] went somewhat overboard in terms of its recommendations and that swung the pendulum back. We moved licensing back to State and we have truly broken it.