Recommendations issued for revitalizing US space industry

Posted: November 18, 2002

A report published Monday by a US government commission recommends that the government "create a space imperative" with a broad emphasis on civilian and military projects to bolster the American aerospace industry, from a new generation of reconnaissance satellites to flying tourists on the shuttle.

The final report by the Commission on the Future of the United States Aerospace Industry, released on Monday, addressed a wide range of issues related to the overall health of the aerospace industry in the US. The commission was established by Congress in late 2000 to study the current status and future of the aerospace industry; the commission started work in November 2001.

One of nine broad areas studied by the commission was space. "Nations aspiring to global leadership in the 21st century must be space-faring," the commission noted in its report. However, the report noted that a "sense of lethargy" had taken over the US space industry. "Instead of the excitement and exuberance that dominated our early ventures into space, we at times seem almost apologetic about our continued investments in the space program."

The commission's overall recommendation is that the United States create a "space imperative" to revitalize the industry. "The Department of Defense, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and industry must partner in innovative aerospace technologies, especially in the areas of propulsion and power," the report stated. "These innovations will enhance our national security, provide major spin-offs to our economy, accelerate the exploration of the near and distant universe with both human and robotic missions, and open up new opportunities for public space travel and commercial space endeavors in the 21st century."

The overall conclusion came with several more specific recommendations. The commission suggested that NASA and the Defense Department collaborate on research that would significant reduce both the cost of space access as well as travel times in space. The commission also endorsed the development of "real-time, global space-based communications, navigation, surveillance and reconnaissance systems" for military and civilian uses.

The commission reiterated a set of conclusions published earlier this year in an interim report, concluding that the space launch infrastructure in the US is in need of a major overhaul. Those conclusions include creating a single management system for the launch facilities at Cape Canaveral and the Kennedy Space Center and the privatization of NASA utilities at the two sites.

The report also noted that current forecasts call for relatively flat demand for launch services for the foreseeable future, with an oversupply of launch vehicles to address that demand. According to a NASA study commissioned under the Space Launch Initiative, the only market with significant growth potential over the next two decades is passenger space travel, better known as space tourism. This market, shunned by NASA to date, "holds the potential for increasing launch demand and improvements in space launch reliability and reusability," the commissioners concluded. "The government could help encourage this by allowing NASA to fly private citizens on the Space Shuttle."

Space was just one of nine broad topics studied by the commission; others ranged from air transportation to global markets to the aerospace workforce. Recommendations in those areas with relevance to space included maintaining an industrial base for critical national infrastructure elements, including space launch; cooperate with other nations in space exploration projects as well as planetary defense against near-Earth objects; and the creation of an overall national aerospace policy that encompasses NASA, the military, and other government agencies.

Converting conclusions into policy
While the commission was created by Congress, neither it nor the President are bound to any of the recommendations published Monday. "The challenge we face on the space frontier is to build from dreams and concepts to the political will to move forward," said Robert Walker, the former Congressman who chaired the commission.

"In order to make space exploration a national imperative, we need to create a Œphase shift' in how people think about space," said Neil deGrasse Tyson, director of the Hayden Planetarium in New York City and a member of the commission. "I'm referring to the people who hold the pocketbooks of funding. I'm referring to people who believe that money in space is just money up the chimney, because space holds answers that may matter to the survival of human beings."

The commission's report was greeted with general praise by members of Congress. "The report makes a strong case that government must increase its investment in aerospace research," said Congressman Sherwood Boehlert, chairman of the House Science Committee. He said he planned to hold a hearing early next year to discuss the report, but made no specific promises regarding legislation related to the report's recommendations.

Some members of the commission itself, however, are skeptical that report will have a significant impact on policy. "My larger concern, however, is that this report is too general and diffuse to have the impact that I believe is needed," John Hamre, former Undersecretary of Defense and a member of the commission, said in remarks included in an appendix to the report. "I believe that the American aerospace industry is in deep trouble. Satellite and space-launch manufacturers are in serious financial difficulty and the industry is near collapse. These are fundamental issues, yet too much of our report is devoted to secondary and tertiary concerns."

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