Federal Investment in Innovation Drives Leadership in Space

Dr. Robert Braun, The Hill, April 26, 2012

In a Hill editorial on March 27, Rep. Pete Olson (R-Texas) stated that since the retirement of the space shuttle last year, America has fallen behind in the battle for the ultimate high ground — space. He pointed to China’s plans for an increased number of rocket launches and its ambitions for more sophisticated Earth satellites and exploration of the Moon in stating that NASA is falling behind. These metrics, however, do not define the high ground or our nation’s technological capability to efficiently utilize this domain. Preeminence in space, and the economic and national security implications that follow, are not simply measured in terms of a number of rocket launches, but rather by the depth and breadth of a nation’s space capabilities and the skill and expertise of personnel that flexibly adapt these capabilities to new missions and new frontiers.

This century will be won by those who innovate, seek breakthroughs and develop new technologies and new industries. Reaching for grand technological challenges, engineers and scientists across this country stand on the cusp of dramatic advances in materials, information technology, energy and biomedical science. These breakthroughs provide lasting societal benefits and are a catalyst to America’s high-tech economy. The aerospace sector is no different. According to a December 2011 report of the Aerospace Industries Association, U.S. aerospace sales marked their eight consecutive year of growth and U.S. aerospace exports are up 12 percent with a positive trade balance of $57.4 billion — the largest trade surplus of any U.S. manufacturing industry. In aerospace, we lead the world. This industry is a job-creator, a technological innovator (e.g., GPS, CMOS imaging sensors, stealth technology, unmanned aerial vehicles and the Weather Channel) and provides a critical advantage to our nation’s economy and security. The aerospace sector is driven by new ideas, innovation and technology, and NASA is the lifeblood of many of these innovations.

While there are a number of issues driven by partisan politics today, our nation’s technological future is not one of them. NASA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the National Science Foundation and other agencies focused on basic and applied research, investments for America’s innovation economy, continue to enjoy broad bipartisan support. Under President Obama’s leadership and with bipartisan congressional support, NASA is developing a deep space crew capsule (with a first test flight in 2014), a heavy-lift rocket and a broad suite of space technologies that will take American astronauts farther from the Earth than we’ve ever been. The agency is focused on utilization of the International Space Station, a unique laboratory for scientific and technological research. This plan also capitalizes on the innovative capabilities of American industry for access to the International Space Station.

Today, there are four organizations that can boast of the accomplishment of developing, flying and recovering a system capable of carrying crew through space. In order of their achievement are the former Soviet Union, the United States, China and, in December 2010, a small company based in El Segundo, Calif., SpaceX.

The retirement of the space shuttle has ushered in a new space race. As in the 1960s, an excitement pervades today’s space race — a race not among nations, but among American companies vying for a capability that for the past 50 years has been the sole purview of nations. Where else but in the United States of America would this be possible? Where else but in the United States of America would we be so bold? This year, SpaceX and Orbital Sciences Corp. will be the first American companies to carry U.S. cargo to space, but there are many others working on their own systems, working on designs capable of carrying crew to space and capitalizing on an emerging commercial space market.

Winning the 1960s race to the moon, NASA made a lasting imprint on the economic, national security and geopolitical landscape of the time. Capturing the spirit, imagination and creativity of the world, this effort accelerated our economy through the creation of new industries, products and services that yielded lasting societal benefit. By focusing on innovation, technology development and the fostering of new capabilities within the U.S. aerospace industrial base, NASA can do the same today.


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