Then and Now in Aerospace

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The title of a motion picture a few years back, ” Honey, I Shrunk the Kids,” is an apt metaphor for what has taken place in the aerospace industry over the last three decades. On several levels, it spells trouble for future grand achievements in space exploration on the scale of the Apollo Moon program.

The huge and rapid progress in space achievements from 1950 to 1970 was due to four conditions: the existence of aeronautical companies still in business after World War II; an embedded cadre of senior engineers and managers who knew how to organize and activate programs; a large pool of young engineers and scientists newly educated through the GI Bill of Rights; and a cooperative Congress, which responded positively to both the need to develop necessary military systems and to what was then little more than the lure of the unknown, in the exploration of space.

Without that combination, the goal of placing a man on the Moon in 10 years could not have been reached.

Whereas in 1960 there were 10 aerospace companies of substantial size, today there are only two, maybe two and a half. And where there were a half-dozen rocket engine companies, there are now only two. A good indicator of the depth of the fall is the adoption of foreign-built rockets into the space launch vehicle inventory by the surviving pair of corporations, Boeing and Lockheed Martin. These two bloated behemoths sit at the same table, sharing the feast, unworried because in the end, contracts will end up being shared equitably between them.

Who would believe that the same folks who couldn’t make the X-33 work will be tasked to build a remarkable new rocket that flies to the Moon?

The squeeze has been brought on not only by changes in military requirements, but also by a significant reduction in NASA’s real spending power. Thanks to inflation and relatively modest budget growth, the agency’s $16.2 billion budget does not buy nearly as much as NASA’s budget did in the 1970s.

Within this budget, the agency cannot do much more over the next 10 years than try to finish the international space station and continue patching the diminishing shuttle fleet to keep it flying. After that, operating the space station will predictably still soak up much of NASA’s budget.

How has this affected the undertaking of any future large projects, like President George W. Bush’s directive to NASA to focus its future efforts on a return to the Moon and then manned expeditions to Mars? It has significantly slowed the pace of progress from inception to operational status. This leads to a situation where a project is finally turned operational when most of the equipment in it is already obsolete.

The rapid pace of technological innovations runs contrary to the slow pace of bringing an enterprise into operation. One has only to look at the international space station, 20 years in construction, to arrive at this conclusion. When the space station finally reaches operational status in 2010, it will be obsolete.

Moreover, it will be difficult to maintain, because many of the manufacturers that produced its parts will no longer be available. A segment of the second tier of contractors that built critical components for it is already out of business, or switched to producing instead chain-link fences and backyard barbecues.

It is revealing to read the December issues of the AIAA Journal, which annually trumpet NASA’s research and development accomplishments, to realize the abysmally slow rate of progress across the spectrum of NASA’s R&D development undertakings.

Paradoxically, Burt Rutan, through his accomplishments at Scaled Composites in the Mohave Desert, repeatedly demonstrates that remarkable technological leaps can be done rapidly and well — lessons that seem lost on NASA.

It is obvious on several fronts that NASA has assumed a plodding course in its work. It has taken over two years to accomplish repairs on the space shuttle fleet that may safely return it to space. In another age, a whole new vehicle could have been produced over that time span. But stepping up the pace now will not ensure that the next big project will move along briskly toward firm objectives. The funding is not there and the institutions have disappeared, or have atrophied.

Sadly, it appears that President Bush has bamboozled the American people as he assumed the heroics of having initiated a return to the Moon and manned exploration of Mars. In this instance it appears, as they say, the emperor will be discovered to have no clothes.

Edward Hujsak is former chief, Preliminary Design, General Dynamics Astronautics Division. He is author of the book, “The Future of U.S. Rocketry.”