The US Space Program: Seeing Stars or Reaching for Them?

“The US human spaceflight program appears to be on an unsustainable trajectory,” opens the summary report from the Review of US Human Space Flight Plans Committee (September 2009). “It is perpetuating the perilous practice of pursuing goals that do not match allocated resources.”

This rather depressing perspective, and numerous words beginning with “p,” are as much part of today’s business marketplace as this committee’s sobering report. This was meant as a wake up call for the US space program and for legislators who are responsible for funding it.

As the space shuttle Endeavor launched early last week, the public was probably more aware about the cargo payload—a new unit for the space station—that the trouble the space program is in. So why do we keep trying to make it go forward if there’s so many hurdles? Is there any hope the space program will find financially-sound footing soon?

To Go Where No Man Has Gone Before

The United States has been struggling with a quandary during the past few decades. We’ve been torn between succeeding with bare minimum shuttle low-orbit and moon missions and the promise that lies ahead—just past our reach—with mars and solar system exploration.

It’s very exciting being able to even fathom taking a trip to the Moon and Mars, but sadly, our technology and investments have not allowed NASA the leeway to at least try. In the current economic crisis, it’s no surprise that funding has been reallocated to other, more necessary functions. After all, we’ve had an automotive and bank bailout and two wars to attend to.

Hope, the next frontier

“There’s just four more shuttle missions, and then that’s all she wrote,” says a retired Air Force employee and now supply chain management professor I met on Twitter (@SCMProfessor). “The latest budget proposal axes the ‘to the moon’ part. [I’m t]hinking I need to make pilgrimage for [the] final launch. [That] would be worth canceling classes [for]…” Brady hasn’t only invested some emotional equity in the shuttle program and space exploration for the cool technology and innovativeness. For him it’s a family affair.

NASA has done a great job at inspiring children and families and obtaining a lot of their emotional equity over the past and leading into today’s missions. These days, it really needs to reinforce this good feeling to help it assure its own future. It’s perhaps exactly this that prompted NASA to release its first iPhone application not too long ago—a possible effort to endear itself to new generations of taxpayers.

John Holdren, Obama’s top science adviser at the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), created the US Human Space Flight panel in hopes of identifying means and methods of strengthening the existing exploration program.

However, as the summary report revealed, it backfired in a way. According to a Wired magazine article, the US’ leading role in space exploration has required far more funding and risks to human life and safety than what was planned for as each project moved forward.

Just to put the various phases of space exploration into perspective:
  • the Apollo moon missions from 1969-1972, cost around $22.7 billion (just under $26 billion in today’s dollars)
  • the Space Shuttle program from 1972-present, is costing $174 billion
  • the International Space Station (ISS) from 1998-present  is expected to cost E100 billion over 30 years
These three main phases have all been wrought with disappointment and losses, as they have with astonishing successes. But they have been expensive. Some of these numbers are mind boggling to the average Joe worried about paying their doctor’s bill. Speaking of average Joes, the space program has an impact on a number of American manufacturers.

According to another OSTP report, this one on the state of space propulsion technology manufacturing and sourcing in the US (December 2009), the US Government and commercial needs for continued and improved access to space are levying a heavy toll on current infrastructure and capabilities. That means companies folks who work at an aerospace parts manufacturer near you.

The committee’s report reviewed all possible technologies and revenue streams that could help alleviate the current gridlock. However, the committee showed little confidence in the untested promise of costly evolving engine and fuel research in the private sector, nor with the potential revenue streams of space tourism (such as Virgin Atlantic). What they were looking at, was the potentially negative impact that an unstable demand cycle for parts by the US Government would have on manufacturers who need a stable source of income to stay afloat in this economy.

The number of space launches in the US has been declining markedly since 2001, with 15 yearly launches versus the prior decade’s average of 22 per year. The decline creates an environment primed for suppliers to bail out at the uncertain demand—leaving a trail of unemployed staff in their journey to a long, slow death. Suppliers are finding themselves in such dire straits they are deciding whether to completely step away from government bids and projects, or just shut down, or move their attention and resources to other, non-government and more lucrative projects.

The financial manager at a large electrical transformer manufacturer based in Oak Brook, Illinois, has been bidding on US Air Force and other aerospace companies for electric services providers RFQs. “The bidding process is an expensive and convoluted process,” Holmes says. Because of the recent economic straits, Tamini stepped down on the amount of bids they put out to the US Government. “Not only is the bidding process expensive to the bidder, but the odds are always stacked against the smaller companies.” Holmes said growing up in the 1960s while the Apollo missions and the moon landing took place, made the space frontier seem so approachable. “It was a life altering for anyone who witnessed that moment in history.”

With these types of repercussions reverberating throughout corporate America during a down economy, it’s very important to revisit the funding and project timeline at NASA in the coming years.

On the Horizon

The Ares I manned Orion vehicle and Ares V unmanned launch vehicles (NASA 2007) are in line to fill in the duties of the outgoing Space Shuttle (personnel and cargo) around this time next year under the program name Constellation. NASA has announced Boeing as the leading avionics supplier for the Ares I rocket that will launch the Constellation crew module (NASA 2007).

Sadly, President Obama’s recent budget announcement in February 2010 included a major cut in funding to the Constellation program. Steve Brady says that the moon mission portion of Constellation has been canceled, but Mars was left in as an ultimate stretch goal. Brady estimates that NASA is probably looking to focus both on low earth orbit and space station missions, and add in larger/longer missions as technology and funding become available. There’s hope for manufacturers yet.

The committee has stated firmly that NASA’s budget should fit its goals, and that its goals should be sensible. Possible opportunities to help with resources emerge with international partnership, short-term planning for the shuttle, technology advancements, and commercial involvement. The 6-7 year human spaceflight gap and an extension of time for the International Space Station all have a role in helping the process as well.

One of the committee’s suggestions included a more reasonable launch for the Constellation program, pushing the first crewed launch until 2017-2019 due to budget. This would help space out expenses and make sure funds are set aside in time for the longer timeline.

President Obama’s budget didn’t spell out only doom and gloom, however, it also featured NASA’s “Bold New Approach for Space Exploration and Discovery.” According to reports available on the White House website, it boosts NASA’s budget by $6 billion over the next five years, includes large increases in technology research and development, and a renewed commitment to aeronautics, earth observation, robotic space exploration, science and education, and an extension of the International Space Station through at least 2020.

The shuttle’s long and bumpy history will hopefully not come to an abrupt end. Hopefully, its end won’t also spell the end of the future of the US aerospace manufacturing and engineering and all the hard-working people these industries employ.