WASHINGTON – Space experts fear that,40 years after putting a man on the moon,the United States is now at risk of losing the modern space race,which could crush the country's chances of becoming the global leader in commercial space development.
Heavyweights of both the aerospace industry and government agencies that regulate it spoke about commercial possibilities beyond Earth,as well as the consequences of falling behind in such pursuits,at a panel discussion Thursday. It was held by the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics at the Hyatt Regency Washington hotel.
Though the field is largely under the public's radar,insiders see commercial space enterprise as a gold mine of both technological innovation and economic opportunity. Some go so far as to say that investing in space could bail out the troubled American economy.
Jeff Bingham,senior adviser on space and aeronautics of the Senate Commerce,Science,and Transportation Committee,said NASA has created industries and economic vitality that have continually spun off into the private sector for the past 50 years.
“Everyone in this room knows that,” Bingham said. “Why doesn't the American public know that?”
Industry panelists spoke about several low Earth orbit,or LEO,projects their companies have in the works.
While the panelists stressed that the U.S. government will not be the only customer for their finished spacecraft or space stations,many private space programs have a close financial link with NASA. The agency has given multimillion dollar contracts to private companies for its LEO transportation needs.
Max Vozoff,an executive of the space technology start-up SpaceX,said he hopes NASA will concentrate on “pushing the envelope” in space exploration and hand off the more routine LEO transportation jobs to private companies. Such a strategy would free up NASA resources for missions to the moon or Mars,he said.
SpaceX has a spacecraft called Dragon in development that will be able to handle manned missions in 2½ years,Vozoff said. Under a 2006 contract with NASA,Dragon will deliver crew and cargo to the International Space Station.
“There just needs to be a little more faith that commercial can actually execute on this,and we hope to prove that,” Vozoff said.
Mike Gold,corporate counsel for Bigelow Aerospace,discussed his company's successful launches of two space station prototypes in 2006 and 2007.
With the possible dismantling of the International Space Station in 2020,a commercial space station could be the only American platform for space tourism and research in microgravity,also called zero gravity.
Bingham described “broad-based research” as the main market for commercial space development in the short term. The absence of gravity is thought to be ideal for studies in several fields,including materials science and cancer and AIDS research.
Bigelow hopes to have a space station in orbit in 2012. More difficult than setting up a space habitat,Gold said,will be getting people there.
NASA plans to retire the Space Shuttle in 2010. Orion,the vehicle at the center of NASA's Constellation project for human spaceflight,is slated for its first manned launch in 2014 at the earliest.
“In the next two years,Russia and China will be the only two nations capable of sending their citizens to orbit,” Gold said. “That's an embarrassment to this nation,and an embarrassment to NASA.”
Ajay Kothari,who attended the event and is president of Astrox Corp.,echoed the panelists' description of the aerospace industry as an up and coming economic powerhouse. His company is designing a hypersonic plane that could travel from the East Coast to Australia in under two hours.
“It's not just about creating 100 more jobs in the next two months,” he said of the industry. “The potential is much bigger than that.”
The great potential,however,is matched by great obstacles.
Many executives expressed frustration with the protracted and sometimes fruitless process of waiting for Congress to authorize and appropriate funding for NASA contracts.
“NASA is not an attractive customer,” said Mike Lounge,a Boeing executive and former NASA astronaut. Lounge described Congress's inability to make multiyear appropriations and the risk of projects being terminated as turn-offs from working with the government,despite its funding capabilities.
His comments recalled NASA's cancellation of a $207 million contract with Rocketplane Kistler in 2007 due to the company's failure to meet financial milestones.
Patti Grace Smith,a former Federal Aviation Administration official,said public perception could be another roadblock for the space industry. She noted that taxpayers generally know little about space aside from high-profile accidents like the 2003 Space Shuttle Columbia disaster.
“In many,many offices when I made rounds on the Hill,I was told,‘This was not a bread and butter issue. I'm not hearing from my constituents on this,'” she said.
Despite the obstacles,Bingham said he believes there is hope for increased funding for NASA and its contracts to private companies. He described the notion that no new money for NASA exists as “the [Office of Budget Management] Kool-Aid we've all been drinking for eight years.”
“NASA will bail out the country if we let it,because where have you had a government activity that has returned more to the economy than it's spent,other than NASA?” Bingham said. “You've seen the numbers – $7 to $9 for every dollar invested.”
But industry officials like Gold fear that commercial opportunities will dry up fast if the United States' private space programs fall behind those of foreign companies and governments.
“If America doesn't get it right this time,we're going to be ordering lo mein in microgravity,” he said.