Amid news of tough economic reports, government bailouts and excessive executive bonus packages, the last thing our country needs is more wasteful spending. But there’s one government investment that has long proved its worth, priming the pump on innovation while contributing greatly to our overall economic strength - America’s space program.
However, some pundits now question whether NASA has lost its way. Recent chatter regarding major changes in NASA’s current course of direction causes us serious concern. As former elected officials and proponents of space-related legislation, we have a deep understanding of the industry and the negative impacts from starting and stopping high-tech space programs.
First, a skilled work force is displaced. Money is wasted. Overall program success decreases. Furthermore, starts and stops harm the NASA-industry partnerships necessary to assure America’s leadership not only in exploring space, but also keeping a close eye on our home planet - Earth.
NASA has been a premier institution for half a century - and at less than 1 percent of the national budget, the program embodies fiscal conservatism. Its state-of-the-art advances and basic research problem-solving has helped fuel our global economy. For America to backtrack on its space trajectory is to forgo space as a national strategic priority.
The country’s space expertise can be squandered if we aren’t resolute in maintaining a robust and vibrant space agenda. We only need look to the past to see the harm a stop-start policy change can cause.
A series of national programs were abruptly canceled during the 1980s and 1990s: the X-33/Venture Star reusable space transportation system, the Orbital Space Plane, as well as the National Aero-Space Plane. As a result, our nation faces a several-year gap in its human space-flight capability, leaving us dependent on Russia for rides into orbit.
Even America’s most triumphant program of landing humans on the moon was curtailed in the early 1970s - shutting down a world-class pool of people-power and unmatched technological prowess. Between the end of Apollo and start of the Shuttle program, NASA lost 367,688 uniquely skilled civil servants and contractors. Dollars wasted, jobs lost, momentum dissipated: We cannot afford to repeat these actions today.
NASA has made amazing progress during its 50 years, and much work remains on its plate. For example, billions of dollars have been invested to put NASA’s Constellation program into high gear, and thousands of employees have been hired across the country. In addition, a bipartisan Congress overwhelmingly voted to support the continuation of NASA’s Constellation program, and even called for accelerating the launch of the Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle and the Ares Crew Launch Vehicle (fiscal NASA authorization bill).
A key ingredient in the grand strategy to return humans to the moon, then onward to Mars and beyond is Orion, Constellation’s new astronaut-carrying spacecraft. Orion hardware is being produced for testing and inspection this year. The first test flight of the Ares I rocket, which will launch astronauts on these new exploration adventures, is set for this summer. Plus, robotic spacecraft are being dispatched as precursors for human explorers to follow.
During his campaign for president, Barack Obama pledged, “The United States should maintain its international leadership in space while at the same time inspiring a new generation of Americans to dream beyond the horizon.”
Today’s NASA is geared not only to inspire Americans, but the entire world. With space exploration on full throttle, we can tackle the daunting challenges we face - reclaiming our aeronautics might, pursuing biomedical research, dealing with global climate change and gaining energy independence. We must adequately fund the space program and commit to progress to accomplish these goals.
As former elected officials of different parties and persuasions, we understand the challenges facing our nation’s space program. What the space program now needs is support for its goals, not a start-and-stop approach that will negatively impact our nation’s strategic capabilities for years to come.
Nick Lampson and Dave Weldon are current advisory board members for the Coalition for Space Exploration and are former members of the U.S. House of Representatives who served in key roles on the Space Science Transportation Committee and were instrumental in legislation affecting NASA.