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NASA in flux: Is U.S. space expertise being hollowed out?

NASA in flux: Is U.S. space expertise being hollowed out?

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The United States' ever-fluctuating plans for NASA is threatening the science and engineering brainpower and workforce development needed to remain a space player.

The United States' ever-fluctuating plans for NASA is threatening the science and engineering brainpower and workforce development needed to remain a space player.

That worry was emphasized in a U.S. House Committee on Science Space and Technology subcommittee hearing devoted to NASA's transition from a plan that revolved around going to the Moon to one focused on more scientific endeavors. Since the Constellation project was canceled 13 months ago, NASA hasn't come up with a plan to come up with a Space Shuttle replacement.

The witnesses for the hearing, which included a NASA scolding for turning in prepared testimony at the 11th hour, included:

  • Douglas Cook, associate administrator, exploration systems mission directorate at NASA;
  • Scott Pace, director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University;
  • James Maser, chairman of the corporate membership committee at the American Institute of Aeronautics.

There's a lot to digest in the hearing and the prepared remarks reveal that NASA is really just getting going on its new direction. The big picture, however, revolves around the brainpower behind NASA and the space economy. As NASA switches gears with every administration and Congress it gets increasingly difficult to recruit talent, innovate and create jobs.

Without a comprehensive space strategy, how can businesses and the country plan ahead?

Pace's testimony reflected reality of a space strategy in flux.

The history of U.S. human spaceflight over the past two decades is one of continual turbulence with occasional episodes of progress. There are many sources of policy instability – some internal to NASA, some embedded in the relationship between successive Administrations and Congresses. The net result has been a lack of human rated launch vehicle and spacecraft development experience while Shuttle operations continued and various R&D programs came and went. Unlike the scientific community at NASA, there was not a steady progression of spacecraft development programs in which both NASA and industry could gain and maintain expertise. The rebuilding of expertise was occurring on the Constellation program, notably with the Ares 1-X flight test, but that progress has not been followed up on.

Pace followed up with the following stat: In the last 20 years, NASA has spent 7 percent of its budget on canceled space programs.

This ebb and flow between NASA funding---as well as the priority changes between exploration and science---mean that you can't effectively prepare a workforce. By time someone is trained, the NASA plan changes.

Pace noted:

There are many ways to monitor transition efforts, from workforce plans, to completion of hardware milestones. However, the most important consideration has always been people, both inside NASA and in industry. Government and industry cannot have coherent workforce transition plans if they cannot define what skill mixes they need today or in the future. Skill mixes cannot be defined absent a clear understanding of government roles and responsibilities (e.g., what work is to be done in will be contracted out) and a stable set of mission requirements that are part of a larger architecture and exploration strategy. The lack of a U.S. focus on human lunar return and an associated architecture is one of the most serious programmatic gaps that make transition planning difficult.

In other words, the workforce lacks a space plan to rally around. Pace added that a lunar trip doesn't have to be the only plan. But there needs to be some project to develop "intellectual capital for developing new spaceflight capabilities."

Maser added that the aerospace industry employs 800,000 people in the U.S., supports 2 million middle class jobs and 30,000 suppliers. A clear space strategy is needed to protect those jobs. Maser's biggest worry: "If the highly skilled aerospace workforce in the U.S. is allowed to atrophy, it will have widespread consequences for our future wellbeing and success as a nation," said Maser.

Cooke noted that NASA is "excited about moving ahead." NASA is "working to build a bridge between the past program and the future by transitioning previous and ongoing development work, best practices and lessons learned from the Constellation program," said Cooke. The problem: NASA is still developing plans for the Space Launch System (SLS) and Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV).

According to Cooke, civil servants in NASA "should be confident that there is exciting and meaningful work for them to do following the retirement of the Shuttle and transition from Constellation." What that work is exactly remains to be seen.

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Larry Dignan

Editor-in-Chief

Editor-in-Chief Larry Dignan is editor-in-chief of SmartPlanet and ZDNet. He is also editorial director of TechRepublic. Previously, he was an editor at eWeek, Baseline and CNET News. He has written for WallStreetWeek.com, Inter@ctive Week, New York Times and Financial Planning. He holds degrees from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and the University of Delaware. He is based in New York but resides in Pennsylvania. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure