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Crisis Grips America’s Space Program as Shuttle Era Ends

Posted by Jim Maser on

Space Shuttle Atlantis is scheduled to lift off from Earth on July 8 and is the final space shuttle mission, ending a very successful program which has brought so much pride to the United States for more than three decades.

Similar to when the Apollo program ended in 1975, this final flight is truly a historic moment for human space flight and the U.S. space program. However, there is one very big difference between the end of the Apollo program and the end of the shuttle program. When the Apollo program ended in 1975, the space shuttle program had already been in development since 1972 allowing for a three year overlap between programs. This was healthy for the development and safety of both programs while also maximizing use of the highly skilled U.S. space industrial base. That is not the case now. The shuttle program is ending in a few short weeks, and NASA has yet to lay out a vision of future U.S. space exploration and a strategy and architecture that will safely get us there.

The consequences of NASA’s inaction are already having a devastating effect, including recent layoffs of several hundred workers tied to the shuttle program. The U.S. space industrial base is a perishable asset, and we are at risk of losing some very critical capabilities built up over 50 years. Rebuilding these skills once gone, would take an enormous amount of time and would come at great expense to the U.S. taxpayers.

Beyond the negative impact of losing our U.S. space industrial base, there are other very serious implications of NASA’s indecision over the last 16 months. We are at risk of abdicating our leadership position in space to foreign countries such as Russia and China. Once the final shuttle is launched, the U.S. will no longer have a human space flight program. We will be totally dependent on Russia to service our significant investment, the International Space Station, and to get our astronauts into orbit and safely bring them home.

Probably one of the most significant and concerning implications is the threat that not having access to space presents to our national security.

Access to space plays a significant part in Department of Defense’s (DoD) ability to secure our nation. The lack of a unified national strategy for exploration and access to space is threatening to negatively affect our national security. From the satellites necessary to navigate military ships and airplanes, to the intelligence gathering platforms used to identify national security threats, our security as a nation is largely dependent on the capabilities provided by access to space. In the past, DoD’s access to space has been subsidized by NASA’s efforts to continue investing in human access to space. In the absence of this investment by NASA, and the lack of a national unified strategy for access to space, DoD now faces a significant investment to continue the access to space necessary to ensure the security of our country.

To be completely clear, the U.S. space program is not facing a crisis; we are in a crisis.

There is no question that there are uncertainties about the best way to move forward. This was true in the early days of space exploration and in the Apollo and Shuttle eras. But we do not have the luxury of waiting until we have all the answers. This industry has smart people with excellent judgment, and we will figure the details out, but not if we don’t get moving soon. NASA must initiate SLS efforts without gapping the program efforts already in place intended to support Constellation.

The time for industry and government to work together to define future space policy is now. We must establish an overarching policy that recognizes the synergy among all government space launch customers to determine the right sustainable industry size, and plan on funding it accordingly.

The need to move with clear velocity is imperative if we are to sustain our endangered U.S. space industrial base, to protect our national security, and to retain our position as the world leader in human spaceflight and space exploration. I believe that if we work together we can achieve these goals.

Jim Maser is president of Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne, maker of the Space Shuttle’s main engines and other rocket engines.

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