Now we have a problem just as daunting, if not as dramatic. The backdrop is an economic landscape that is still experiencing Richter-scale tremors, including lingering unemployment at levels not seen in more than 30 years, and a manufacturing infrastructure that is increasingly moving overseas. We are at risk of losing our edge in technological advances and, more specifically, our hard-won leadership in space.
Unfortunately, the American public is largely unaware that the U.S. space program faces a formidable challenge. The Obama administration is proposing to cancel the current government-run space exploration program, known as Constellation, and instead encourage a market-based solution for commercial space transportation – primarily for delivering cargo and crew to the International Space Station. Many in Congress reacted to his proposal with outright animosity fearing that transferring our space transportation infrastructure to the commercial sector would ultimately lead to ceding our role as the international leader in space. A stalemate between Congress and the administration ensued and now each side waits for the other to blink.
Meanwhile, the space industry waits. Manufacturers and suppliers are weighing options – how long do can we carry employees without a definitive way forward? Layoffs have begun; not only in “space” states like Florida and Texas – but also in Arizona, New York and Utah. Aerospace talent lost to other industries may be unrecoverable; new workers will take years to train.
As one of its last items of business before adjourning for the August recess, the Senate passed the National Aeronautics and Space Administration Act of 2010. The bill provides a compromise solution between the administration's proposed cancellation of the Constellation program in favor of using commercial crew services and the preference of Congress to maintain at least some government-run space transportation programs.
The House version of the bill is still pending, floating tetherless in space and awaiting a final pull that can land the matter in a final House-Senate compromise and into law. As time grows short in the legislative calendar, a final resolution seems less and less likely.
So, given our current economic woes, why should anyone care about space exploration? Unemployment? Let’s see. Our space programs are an integral part of our aerospace and defense industry that employs 819,000 workers and indirectly supports 30,000 suppliers and two million middle-class jobs across all 50 states. Manufacturing and trade? Aerospace companies export 40 percent of their total output, and routinely post the nation’s largest manufacturing trade surplus, which was over $56 billion in 2009. National security concerns require that most of these jobs must remain on American soil. Space even has a role to play in whether your eggs are safe to eat. Research on the International Space Station is resulting in breakthroughs that could soon lead to salmonella vaccines.
So, Washington, we have a problem. Will we rise to the challenge and maintain the preeminent U.S. role in space or let the program drift into irrelevancy? Action is needed now. Congress must complete a NASA authorization bill and appropriate the necessary funds before the November elections or face the possibility that our leadership in space will be seen only on the History Channel.