40 Years Later – U.S. Space Exploration Faces Another Gap

July 22nd, 2009

On July 20, people around the world celebrated an American triumph. The 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing recalls a period of curiosity, ingenuity and perseverance that captured the world’s imagination. I was in Houston interviewing with NASA for a spot in the astronaut corps in 1969 when Neil Armstrong took his first step on the lunar surface. It was phenomenal to observe it up close, but the moment was bittersweet. Even as we did something that had never been done before, we knew we wouldn’t be doing it much longer. The program was winding down because of budget constraints.

The Apollo 11 anniversary this year and the scheduled end of the Shuttle program next year evoke many of the same conflicting emotions we felt behind the scenes in 1969. A smart, young workforce had fueled the race to the moon. When Apollo missions ended in 1972, so too did thousands of jobs. Our brightest and most committed were unemployed.

Due to budget constraints and shifts in approach, the current plan calls for a several years-long gap between the end of the Shuttle program and the first flight of the Constellation program, NASA’s new initiative to return to the moon and beyond. That devastating gap could mean another “brain drain” as talented, skilled contractors and NASA employees are forced to take their institutional knowledge elsewhere.

Once people leave, you can’t just call them up years later and say, “We’re going to fly again, and we hope you’ve waited around for years to come back and share your talents.” We found ourselves in this situation when we started the Shuttle program – forced to train a new workforce with no prior experience. As one of the few people in the world who has piloted a never-before-flown spacecraft, I’m here to tell you – you want experienced engineers and technicians on your team.

While preparing for the first Shuttle mission at Kennedy Space Center in Florida in the 1970s, I also witnessed firsthand the economic devastation of the aerospace industry downturn. The Space Coast, Houston and other cities that thrived on aerospace were hit hard. Once again, we face the prospect of thousands of layoffs, and the residual economic blow to aerospace communities around the country is grim, especially coupled with the current national climate. Delaying key decisions about the future of the program will magnify the job losses.

The Obama administration recently announced a comprehensive review of the existing Shuttle-to- Constellation plan by an independent panel, with a report due by August. The review provides an opportunity to consider adjustments that could prevent the loss of talented personnel while heading off devastating economic effects. Also, the administration’s selection of Charles Bolden for NASA Administrator is a very positive move.

NASA and industry leaders have been working hard to keep top talent, ensuring the current design of the Constellation program takes advantage of those already working on Shuttle. The leadership is limited, however, by budgetary and policy guidelines.

President Obama has recognized the importance of the United States’ position as a leader in space exploration. In a recent speech at the National Academy of Sciences, he marked the Apollo 11 anniversary with a reminder that “the enormous investment of that era – in science and technology, in education and research funding – produced a great outpouring of curiosity and creativity, the benefits of which have been incalculable.”

Critics may question the benefits of a strong space program, but America’s space industry is a critical component of both our economy and our legacy of exploration. Wernher von Braun, who developed the Saturn V rocket that propelled Apollo to the moon and is widely considered the greatest rocket scientist in history, was quick to answer the critics of his day with the facts:

“The NASA budget is not being spent on the moon,” he said. “It is being spent right here on Earth. It provides new jobs, new products, new processes, new companies and whole new industries.”

The same holds true today. Adequate support of the Constellation program from the country and Washington is imperative to minimize the gap, retain expertise and instill enthusiasm for science and technology in a new generation.

During the Nixon administration, the gap between the Apollo and Space Shuttle programs was devastating to the aerospace industry. The six-year gap cost America more than 400,000 jobs. Today, we face a similar once-in-a-generation decision. Based on the long-term view of President Obama’s support for America’s space exploration program, my guess is he won’t make the same mistakes. Instead, my fervent hope is that he will not only minimize the gap, but he will also build on JFK’s vision and return America to its greatness as a truly spacefaring nation.

Bob Crippen is a former astronaut who served as pilot of the first space shuttle mission (STS-1); commander of three other space shuttle missions (STS-7, STS-41C, STS-41G); former director of the Kennedy Space Center in Florida; and former president of Thiokol Propulsion. He is a current member of the Coalition for Space Exploration Board of Advisors.