The Space Review

SLS illustration
The AIA supports the development of the Space Launch System as well as commercial crew and cargo systems. (credit: NASA)

Perspectives on NASA’s strategic direction

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AIA represents over 350 aerospace manufacturing companies and their highly-skilled employees. These companies make the spacecraft, launch vehicles, sensors, and ground support systems employed by NASA, and other US civil, military, and intelligence space organizations throughout the globe, and many of the world’s commercial communication satellites. AIA’s member companies sustain nearly 3.5 million jobs, including much of the high-technology work that keeps this nation on the cutting edge of science and innovation.

Our support for NASA and the nation’s space programs is rooted in a fundamental belief that US space programs have been and continue to be a force of good for our nation.

As you are aware, the space sector within US industry remains closely affected by US government space programs. In recent years, our nation’s space industrial base has been struggling to adapt to reduced demand by government—especially due to the end of the Space Shuttle program—and downward pressures on DOD, NASA, and NOAA budgets that threaten to exacerbate the risk to the industrial base.

AIA believes that any examination of NASA’s strategic direction should include consideration of the health of the US aerospace industrial base to ensure that our national space capabilities for US government and commercial markets remain second to none. By maintaining stability in objectives for NASA programs, and proactively strategizing equitable management of possible fiscal austerity at NASA, the industrial base can be put in a position to succeed for the benefit of our nation’s security, science, and exploration programs.

Although AIA is highly supportive of policies and laws that encourage stability in the space industrial base, our support for NASA and the nation’s space programs is rooted in a fundamental belief that US space programs have been and continue to be a force of good for our nation.

Space exploration is an irreplaceable, transformative intellectual stimulus for steady, sustained growth in STEM workforces. Frequently those students that were stimulated by dramatic space activities become our nation’s scientists, doctors, mathematicians, engineers, and technicians in a wide variety of highly technical fields that are critical to US competitiveness.

NASA space programs are an awe-inspiring success story in American character and leadership. Successful space programs not only breed a culture of innovation across the nation, they require it. Technological innovations developed for space programs are often later applied to other fields like medicine or emergency management—frequently saving lives on Earth, and growing prosperity for our national economy. NASA space programs also play a key role in garnering soft power and enhancing American leadership abroad. Look no further to the 16-nation partnership on the International Space Station for a high-profile example of American leadership in innovation.

AIA sincerely believes that those who lead in space, lead on Earth. As a vital source for new STEM professionals, an exceptional symbol of American strength, a foundry of cutting-edge innovation, NASA is an essential investment in our nation’s future.

The need for stability in program objectives

NASA needs long-term stability to succeed; it is this stability in the past that has enabled its greatest triumphs, from the Moon landings and the Space Shuttle, to the tremendously successful Hubble Space Telescope and the ongoing International Space Station. Stability in NASA program objectives is essential to both program success and the health of the US aerospace industrial base. Although the end of the Space Shuttle Program, the cancellation of the Constellation Program, and delays in agreeing upon a path forward between the Administration and Congress brought significant upheaval to the aerospace industrial base, AIA believes the NASA Authorization Act of 2010, and the 2011 NASA Strategic Plan that implemented the Act, provide much needed stability. Such stability with clear and consistent objectives is essential to assure future industry investments and encourage the recruitment of new aerospace talent.

AIA is mindful of the fiscal challenges facing our nation but while funding in this environment may be difficult, so was funding for the Shuttle Program in the stagflation ’70s and for ISS in the early ’90s recession. In both cases, perseverance paid off, and we are confident it will once again.

Ensure US access to ISS

The 2011 NASA Strategic Plan and the 2010 Authorization Act also rightly prioritize full utilization of the recently completed ISS through 2020. The ISS is an irreplaceable platform for scientific study that must be robustly utilized in order to provide returns on taxpayer investment. Full utilization in the post-Space Shuttle era depends on developing new domestic access to ISS for American astronauts. NASA’s Commercial Crew and Cargo programs are the most expedient way to re-establish American access to ISS and end reliance on the Russian Soyuz. In addition to independent access to the ISS, these programs develop new commercial space capabilities. Just as NASA programs in the past were integral to proving new space systems for commercial use such as commercial communication satellites, the Commercial Crew program holds similar potential to demonstrate capabilities for low Earth orbit. In addition to freeing NASA’s resources to execute its plans for human exploration beyond Earth orbit, the development of commercial systems could also help demonstrate reliability in new affordable launch systems for exploration and space science missions.

Significantly shifting or ending the Commercial Crew and Cargo program would incur devastating delays for American access to ISS. US industry is investing capital and innovative ideas to support this new future, and US government agencies and the Congress have also taken key steps that have helped foster these new initiatives. Stability in these programs is needed for industry to realize the complimentary goals of developing new systems and re-establishing American access to ISS.

Human spaceflight beyond Earth orbit

In the area of human spaceflight, the NASA Strategic Plan offers a wise and dynamic approach that builds new capabilities for pushing the envelope of exploration to new destinations, while also growing commercial space capabilities that lie on the horizon.

Significantly shifting or ending the Commercial Crew and Cargo program would incur devastating delays for American access to ISS.

AIA agrees with NASA’s capabilities based approach to develop the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle and the Space Launch System (SLS) for human exploration beyond Earth orbit. Orion and SLS will be the cornerstone vehicles for future exploration. While a definite path has not been widely agreed upon for human space exploration destinations in out years, these vehicles are an essential building block for NASA to go beyond Earth orbit, no matter the destination. Basic developmental progress on the Orion and SLS should therefore continue in the meantime. Bringing new launch vehicles and spacecraft on line takes significant lead time, and basic progress can be made now even if the timeline of destinations is not yet outlined in detail. And to create that detail, AIA supports the NASA Authorization Act of 2010 (Sec. 204), which mandates an Independent Study on Human Exploration of Space conducted by the National Academies to recommend a path forward for the decade 2014–2023.

For example, the US government’s anticipated need for a large and powerful rocket engine initiated the F-1 rocket engine program in the 1950s, well before President Kennedy’s Moon program announcement. Although it was not yet known how the F-1 would be used at the outset of development, the program began in anticipation of likely future needs. In fact, the F-1 took over seven years to develop, and would never have been ready to enable Apollo without this early start. The F-1 of course, would later power the Saturn V launch vehicle for the Apollo Moon missions, Skylab missions, and Apollo-Soyuz mission—none of which had been defined when F-1 development began in 1955, three years before NASA was created. The basic F-1 engine capability was foundational to a variety of mission profiles for the human spaceflight program, and the Orion and SLS will be used for a variety of beyond Earth orbit destinations that have yet to be defined.

By continuing development of Orion and SLS, work force capabilities and competencies are not only preserved but also grown. Orion has made major progress leading up to its first test flight in 2014. The core stage of the SLS is now moving into a technical design phase, and former Space Shuttle engines are ready for utilization by SLS. Tangible, real progress has been made in these programs, and the space industrial base is rising to meet the challenge of human exploration beyond Earth orbit, while also inspiring new generations with our plans to move forward. Continuing SLS and Orion will enable a human spaceflight missions beyond Earth orbit to a variety of destinations, and help protect the health of the space industrial base needed for other civil and national security programs.

In 2010, due to funding and program challenges, the Constellation human exploration program was cancelled after a blue-ribbon panel concluded the program was unexecutable based on current funding prospects. Further interruption of the human spaceflight program would be devastating for the human spaceflight program and the industry, yet the funding picture has not improved and may get worse. Repeatedly starting and stopping programs is a recipe for industrial base disaster: many parts and component suppliers to larger prime contractors on programs like Orion and SLS simply cannot absorb major acquisition disruptions when the order volume of components is already so low in the space industry. Many suppliers design and fabricate unique, one-of-a-kind parts for the entire space industry. Additional program instabilities could put such suppliers out of business, and raise the fixed cost for all US government space programs, just as Shuttle’s retirement raised costs for DOD solid rockets. Finally, major primes or other major companies could decide to exit the business and seek more stable opportunities elsewhere, depriving NASA of their unique capabilities.

The Orion, SLS, and Commercial Crew programs are part of a bipartisan agreement between the White House and the Congress. These systems fulfill the Columbia Accident Investigation Board’s conclusion that exploration beyond Earth orbit is a fundamental reason for human space exploration. This perspective also reflects widespread consensus, codified by law that the United States should promote the commercial development of space. In order to achieve this end and protect the space industrial base, the Orion and SLS programs should continue as planned.

Repeatedly starting and stopping programs is a recipe for industrial base disaster: many parts and component suppliers to larger prime contractors on programs like Orion and SLS simply cannot absorb major acquisition disruptions when the order volume of components is already so low in the space industry.

Additionally, in order to ensure that future agency needs can be met for exploration, AIA urges that the US government continue investments in new space launch and in-space propulsion technology. The long lead times for developing these new systems can only be overcome with steady US government investment. Moreover, AIA encourages the US government to coordinate its technology development efforts across all relevant agencies, including NASA and the DOD, to maximize the effectiveness of such research for the benefit of all government space programs.

International cooperation beyond Earth orbit

AIA recognizes the value of international partnerships in space programs, and they have been crucial to NASA’s success. The International Space Station (ISS) demonstrated not only the ability for a multinational partnership to successfully design, build, and operate a complex and sophisticated space system across multiple decades, it showed that the partnerships themselves can help provide programmatic and political sustainability for missions and programs in the long-term.

Moreover, international partnerships in space are an incredibly important symbol of soft power leadership. Those countries that live and work in space offer dramatic examples of technological competency and strength that is viscerally understood by millions of people around the world. Space programs are a source of irreplaceable national pride. When a nation trailblazers new space capabilities, an unmistakable message is delivered: they have arrived at the top tier of national development.

In addition to the inherent soft power value of space, there are valuable opportunities to make diplomatic inroads with space programs. In the 1980s, Space Station Freedom was to be a uniting force for those in the free world. The Space Shuttle featured a number of highly successful bilateral partnerships, including the Canada Arm program, and the European Space Lab. The US cooperated extensively with the Japanese on the development on their N-1 launch vehicle. When Russia was later brought onboard the International Space Station Program, the new Russian Federation was given the opportunity to help regain stability and maintain their high profile space program with participation on the station. Today NASA maintains a highly-functioning international partnership with 16 nations on the ISS, and 557 active bilateral partnerships NASA maintains across the world. Within these partnerships NASA is a force of immense good, representing the United States abroad in a way that cannot be replicated by any other US government entity.

The value of international space cooperation is undisputed, and their likely role in future exploration beyond Earth orbit is becoming increasingly elevated. NASA’s development of the Orion and SLS for human exploration beyond Earth orbit is a great start, but more hardware elements will be needed to realize dynamic human missions beyond Earth orbit, such as landers and crew habitats. Our nation’s current fiscal climate makes it especially difficult to build these additional elements within projected budget profiles. Therefore, it is necessary and wise for NASA to explore international cooperative partnerships like those used on ISS to enable beyond Earth orbit exploration. To mitigate the impact on US industry, AIA strongly urges that NASA recognize potential impacts from international partnerships to the US space industrial base, and regularly consult with industry as future cooperation is considered with international partners.

By coordinating with industry—something our international partners regularly do already—NASA can maximize benefits from international partnerships while ensuring the health of the US space industrial base. By making decisions with the space industrial base in mind, key domestic space capabilities are preserved for the agency, and other US government sectors.

Space science programs

Space science programs at NASA have nurtured crown-jewel capabilities in our space industrial base while answering important questions about our planet, our solar system, and our universe. The 2011 NASA Strategic Plan and the 2010 Authorization Act appropriately emphasize the need to continue this proud legacy with steady investment for future missions, especially when it comes to the NASA priority science mission, The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST). It will be NASA’s premier telescope for answering bold, paradigm-shifting questions, including questions of the origin and nature of the universe, galaxies, stars, and planets.

As space science missions become more sophisticated, the need for steadfast US government commitment becomes all the more critical to success.

It is important to recognize that US scientific leadership is not a given: it is dependent on the will and commitment to fund innovative space science missions. If new space science missions are not built to carry the torch of progress from previous missions, US world-class research programs can be overcome by more aggressive international programs. Reduction in space science leadership could easily translate to a significant loss in students attracted to STEM fields. The inspired wonder of the universe captivates the imagination at a very early age, and in many cases leads to technical careers and advanced degrees. Students inspired by dramatic scientific pursuits often lead the future workforce that regularly produces the technological innovation we have come to rely upon in our daily lives. The benefits of space science investments are far-reaching, and in many ways our leadership pays dividends in knowledge, prestige, and further innovation.

Although there is widespread support for strong space science programs at NASA, considerable stress can sometimes be placed on space science programs to cut costs and speed development. It’s important to remember that as the scientific community looks to answer bold, paradigm-shifting questions, the complexity of space science missions can grow to meet these challenges. As space science missions become more sophisticated, the need for steadfast US government commitment becomes all the more critical to success. The resolve of the US government must remain strong to stay the course through to success.

Many space science missions face enormous technical challenges in accomplishing technical feats that have never been done before. They must also grapple with limited capacity of affordable, domestic space launch systems to low Earth orbit. Couple these challenges with an occasional launch failure and annual budget constraints, and an environment has been created in which space science missions face a considerably daunting future.

Look no further to the Earth observation community for evidence of an increasingly difficult situation for space science. The National Research Council recently reported, “that the nation's earth observing system is beginning a rapid decline in capability, as long-running missions end and key new missions are delayed, lost, or cancelled.” With such an increasingly difficult environment coalescing on space science, it is all the more necessary for the US government to maintain a steady resolve for future mission development. The space industrial base that has enabled incredible US achievements in space science can only be sustained for future missions if a steady commitment is maintained by the US government to continue these missions.

In addition to NASA’s crown-jewel science programs, specialized programs like the Flight Opportunities Program and ROSES Program are also vital to sustain suborbital science missions. Suborbital science is not only a unique capability NASA should nurture for the science community, it is an important on-ramp capability for growing ISS utilization. AIA encourages NASA to leverage private investments to grow this promising realm of research.

NASA Partnerships

NASA’s unique capabilities and competencies are world renowned, and incredibly important to other agencies within the US government. NASA’s role in reimbursable government agreements is important to the continued operation of several critical government programs. Of special importance remains NASA’s reimbursable work with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) on weather satellites. As the developer of the nation’s weather satellites, NASA plays an essential part in protecting our safety and our economy from natural catastrophes. Additionally, NASA is also a key partner in the operation of the Landsat program at the US Geological Survey at the Department of Interior. Landsat is a vital Earth observation system for US Government land and coastal surveys. NASA also maintains a partnership with the Department of Energy to ensure the nation’s deep space exploration systems have access to non-weapons grade plutonium-238. Without such fuel, space exploration to the outer planets and beyond becomes impossible. AIA encourages the continuation of these reimbursable agreements to meet important national needs.

Managing fiscal austerity

In addition to stability in program objectives, budgetary conditions at NASA also threaten to affect program effectiveness and space industrial base health. As of now, the Budget Control Act is law, and without a legislative solution, across-the-board cuts to NASA will begin in January 2013. A cut of 9.1% to NASA’s budget next year would immediately eliminate $1.6 billion from the agency and significantly affect its strategic direction. Should the 9.1% cut be enacted, the impact on programs would likely be magnified by the NASA Authorization Act of 2010 that forbids NASA employee layoffs through FY13. AIA believes the Budget Control Act is the single most serious threat to NASA’s strategic plans in the near-term, and AIA urges Congress to prevent these cuts from going into effect.

Right-sizing NASA

Regardless of whether the Budget Control Act is modified or repealed, an austere federal budget environment is likely to be in place for some time. AIA therefore urges NASA to take on equitable strategies for maintaining program stability and the health of the aerospace industrial base in an era of leaner budgets.

AIA believes the Budget Control Act is the single most serious threat to NASA’s strategic plans in the near-term, and AIA urges Congress to prevent these cuts from going into effect.

Throughout NASA’s history, from Mercury to Space Shuttle, the agency has seen major transitions from program to program. Although the agency has largely managed its workforce according to its budget and mission, there are some instances where the agency structure has not been specifically crafted for major programs at hand—sometimes with few modifications of the civil service workforce in response to program restructures, cancellations, or developments. During such eras, the civil service workforce has remained steadily in place as the industrial partners to NASA programs face the brunt of program fluctuations. For example, following the Apollo Program, the agency budget declined by nearly 60%, while the civil service workforce reduction was only about 30%. In the modern era, from 2006 to 2012, the NASA Aeronautics budget went gone down by about 40%, but staffing levels are only down by 5%.

Historically, NASA’s civil service workforce has adjusted according to its annual budget, with the exception of a few eras.

Despite the fact that it is aerospace companies that make the spacecraft, launch vehicles, sensors, and ground support systems employed by NASA, it is the industry workforce that absorbs almost all of the workforce layoffs during lean years. This puts the space industrial base in a precarious position. The industrial workforce that disproportionately absorbs program changes and cancellations must still serve the needs of NOAA, DOD, NRO, and other government agencies engaged in space operations.

As we face a likely era of lean federal budgets, AIA recommends that approaches be considered which better allow NASA to meet its strategic goals. For example, AIA urges NASA to widely pursue commercial, academic, and government agency partnerships as a way to maintain and spread the cost of very expensive and unique assets, while making these assets available for NASA programs. And it urges NASA to fully utilize existing authorities (enhanced use lease, etc.) in doing so. The human and physical assets of NASA and its supporting industrial base represent a large and critical national investment that needs continual maintenance and upgrade. As pressures on budgets continue, sharing these assets is an effective way for NASA to strengthen the U.S. economy, to reduce cost of asset ownership, and to keep the assets available for the space program of the future.

Additionally, to allow NASA the freedom to appropriately adjust to space program realities, AIA recommends that future NASA Authorization Acts not include restrictive provisions on NASA civil service workforce like those seen in the NASA Authorization Act of 2010.


AIA is highly supportive of NASA’s strategic direction, and the balanced, bipartisan approach that was agreed upon by the White House and the Congress in the NASA Authorization Act of 2010. Without the historically unique priority and resources of the Apollo program, we may have to settle for an incremental exploration program with greater international and private sector involvement, not a dramatic “Moon shot.” But this does not mean we should abandon human exploration until all our problems are solved and the Treasury is flush with cash. While not as dramatic, such an approach can still produce a solid exploration program with real STEM education value while producing the technological and soft power benefits of US space leadership—attracting talent and capital to our shores and add to our international reputation as a leading power in the 21st Century.

By steadily investing in the goals of the 2010 Act, the US government can ensure the health of the US space industrial base, while simultaneously building future space successes that have come to define American character and leadership. The resurgence in new human spaceflight system development is incredibly impressive: no other nation in the world is developing such a wide breadth of systems in the public and private sector. The continuous landmark successes in space science are unprecedented in the history of civilization, re-shaping our entire understanding of the universe. By building upon these successes with continued investment and policy support for the goals in the 2010 Act, the US government can be assured its space program will remain worthy of a great nation.



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