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Space exploration remains vital issue given country’s economic current woes

 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.

Marion C. Blakey is President and CEO of the Aerospace Industries Association and formerly served a five-year term as administrator of the FAA.

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