The highly anticipated report from the Augustine Committee, the White House-chartered panel to review U.S. space policy led by former Lockheed Martin chief executive Norman Augustine, has been released. The panel is to be commended on writing such a thorough review of U.S. human spaceflight options in a short period of time. The report identified various alternatives for NASA’s human spaceflight program. While each offers a varying degree of human spaceflight options, they all rely on humans as an integral part of space exploration. Why is this significant for the Johnson Space Center and its many contractors? We are home to human spaceflight.
Within the next few months, decisions will be made by the White House and Congress on which alternative is best for the future of NASA. Regardless of the decisions made, if adequate funding is not provided, we will continue to see erosion in the U.S. space program, and it won’t be long before we relinquish our position as the world’s No. 1 spacefaring country to a more ambitious and forward-looking nation.
The alternatives present unparalleled opportunities for the United States to continue to expand its leadership role in the international space community. The international space station is an excellent example of how much can be accomplished when multinational resources are engaged toward a common goal. We, as a nation, can choose to continue our investment in scientific discovery and international relations or we can choose to lose our leadership position to Russia, China, India or Japan. Insufficient funding for the world’s premier space program will undoubtedly erode our leadership role with significant consequences for our security and our competitive position in the world. With our loss of leadership in other high-tech industries, do we want to give up this one as well? Do we want to have to buy our rides to space from a foreign government? This should be unacceptable to us as a nation.
What will it take to keep America “first in flight?” The Augustine report states: “Meaningful human exploration is possible under a less constrained budget, ramping to approximately $3 billion per year above the FY 2010 guidance in total resources.”
Compared to recent government expenditures, this is not that much to invest, especially considering the return to the American taxpayers on this investment. According to a recent congressional oversight report, we have spent $74 billion to help the nation’s auto industry, an industry that has relied on the technology developed in space to enhance its product. Investing the same amount in NASA would ensure America’s pre-eminent position in human spaceflight for the next 25 years.
Why do this? Why fund NASA to the tune of an additional $3 billion or more per year? Go beyond the obvious and consider the ripple effect. Arguably, perhaps, the space industry is the only industry in the world that consistently creates new technology. Our cars and trucks are lighter, stronger and safer due to NASA technology. Computers, cell phones, GPS and many life-saving medical advancements all have roots in the space industry.
The human factor is equally important. Generations of our young people have been inspired by NASA. The promise of working in America’s space program has, for the past 50 years, influenced students to go into science, technology, engineering and math careers. For example, 35 percent of the Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle program is composed of young professionals.
Consider this: We will have a seven-year gap where no Americans are launched into space on American rockets. At no time in our history of spaceflight have we experienced a gap of this magnitude. Think for a moment of the loss of inspiration to millions of our young people that can never be recovered. Think of the lost opportunities to the United States in terms of high-technology innovations and breakthroughs that will not occur when students choose non-technical careers.
Do we break our promises to our nation’s children and young professionals by opting to take the easy route and not provide much-needed funding to NASA’s human spaceflight program? This, too, should be unacceptable to us as a nation.
The United States is unquestionably the world’s leader in space exploration, something that can no longer be said about many industries we led at one time. The question remains: Are we willing to give this up for the lack of a very reasonable investment?
Congress and the president are faced with tough choices every day. Fully supporting human spaceflight, on the other hand, should be an easy choice. By making the choice to provide the additional funding necessary for a robust U.S. space exploration program, government and private industry jobs will be retained and created, international relationships will be secured and strengthened with America leading the way, and our youth will continue to dream of exploring the universe, taking those steps necessary to do so. Not only is this the most reasonable course of action, it’s the right thing to do — for America and for the world.
Bob Mitchell is president of the Bay Area Houston Economic Partnership.