Douglass Says Some Nation Will Develop New Space Shuttle
NASA Sorely Underfunded, Needs Far More Money: Douglass
U.S. preeminence in space is fading because NASA is being starved of funding it urgently requires, and that may mean some other nation — not the United States — will develop a spaceplane replacement for the aging U.S. space shuttle fleet.
That was the sobering assessment of John Douglass, who soon will step down as the Aerospace Industries Association president and CEO, in a wrapup media briefing for defense and space journalists.
In response to questioning, he said that the United States is slipping badly in supporting its space program, and needs to increase funding by a wide margin.
"We cannot go back to the moon on the kind of" money being provided in NASA budgets, he said.
Douglass also views as lacking the NASA plan to build a next-generation spaceship to replace the space shuttle fleet, a craft that could go to the International Space Station and later to the moon. The shuttles will retire in 2010, while the new Orion-Ares space transportation vehicle and rocket won’t see manned flight until 2015, a half-decade gap when the United State won’t even be able to lift one astronaut to low Earth orbit.
"What do you think is going to happen during that period if we see a foreign astronaut on the moon?" Douglass demanded. "What are the American people going to say when we can’t even get up to the [International] Space Station, and we’ve got foreign astronauts on the moon?"
There is, he said, "a probability" that an Asian nation will do so.
He spoke after China has used its new-found wealth to send a taikonaut into orbit, and to send a probe to the moon. China also intends to send a manned mission to the moon in the next decade. (Please see story in this issue.)
Japan and India also have burgeoning space programs, which will proceed apace as NASA retreats from space back to Earth.
To be sure, while that is embarrassing for the nation that put a man on the moon in the 1960s, Douglass doesn’t favor extending the operating life of the space shuttle program, seeing in those craft a dangerous design from decades past.
While some say the shuttle fleet is being retired in 2010 to free up money for developing the Orion-Ares spacecraft, Douglass differs.
"The real reason why the shuttle is being retired is because of safety concerns," he said. "It is not money concerns. And I would be irresponsible to argue that we should endanger the lives of our astronauts just to keep a capability going during that five-year [gap] period. I do not think that’s a responsible thing to do."
But he also had little praise for the Orion crew exploration vehicles that will replace the shuttle fleet. Orion would involve a similar but larger version of the Apollo capsule that took Americans to the moon, returning to Earth after reentry by parachuting to a splashdown or touchdown.
Instead, workable space missions require a spacecraft that, like the existing shuttles, can fly back to a normal landing, not some capsule dangling from a chute, he argued.
"I am going to go out on a limb a little bit here and make a prediction to you," Douglass said. "When we get out into that five-year gap [after U.S. space shuttles cease flying], I think we are going to see some nation in the world come up with something that looks very much like the shuttle and start to operate it.
"And where are we going to be? We’re going to be bringing our capsules back on parachutes the way [NASA] and the Russians did 30 or 40 years ago. And I think people are going to look and say, ‘Wait a minute. What’s going on here? Why are we still hitching up horses to the buggy and these other guys got a newfangled horseless carriage here? I think we’ll be seen as not on the razor’s edge of technology. And I think that’s unfortunate. I would like to see a program started that would be a really modern version of the shuttle.
"You know, a space plane program. I think that’s where we’re all going to end up having to go – all of the nations in the future. So, I think our national investment in space over the years has been a good one. And I think much more needs to be done there."
No Guts, No Money
"I think we suffered from a national lack of vision and imagination and resolve to spend the money we need to get to where we want to go. There certainly is not a sense that we’re doing this like JFK did it," Douglass said.
That referred to President John F. Kennedy, who made the decision that the United States would go to the moon, a daring response to the Russian firsts in space: Sputnik, the first satellite, and the first voyage of a human being into space, by Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin.
Kennedy needed courage to make that momentous decision, because the lunar Apollo mission and all the steps leading up to it required enormous sums ($5 billion, which sounds like chump change now but was a staggering amount 40 years ago).
Douglass indicated there are no similar profiles in courage being written today in funding the American space program.
"In space, the real issue for us is, how do we continue to be a global leader in this journey that mankind has embarked on to explore not only our own Earth, the space around our Earth, but the moon and the other planets?"
The United States and the USSR "were the two leaders in this," but in the world today, "that [NASA] program has not had the kind of investments that it needs."
Douglass on the one hand endorsed President Bush’s vision of manned missions journeying to the moon, Mars and beyond. But on the other hand, "it’s not funded properly," and a return to the moon can’t be realized on the budget that NASA is provided today. "It’s not going to happen," Douglass warned.
When push comes to shove, he said, U.S. leaders must have the fortitude to choose spending vitally required amounts of money over halfway measures and inadequate programs.
"There is something out there … some increases [in NASA funding] that are going to have to be made in the future, and we should not shy away from the [Bush space exploration] vision just because we know that it’s going to cost us more downstream," he said.
Douglass has no patience with those who might argue that the space program is unaffordable.
After all, he pointed out, NASA funding now is equivalent to less than a single percent — 0.6 percent — of the U.S. gross domestic product. In the 1960s, NASA funding amounted to 3 to 4 percent of GDP, he noted.
Regardless of who is elected president next year, Douglass said, "That clearly is an issue for the next administration," to bolster funding to adequate levels.
He also touched on many other areas, including an optimistic outlook for the aerospace industry.
Aerospace Sales May Top $200 Billion
Aerospace industry sales may top $200 billion this year, according to Douglass.
That would be a roughly 9 percent advance from last year. Douglass announced last December in his annual industry review and forecast that total 2006 deliveries were estimated at $184 billion, up from a robust $170 billion in 2005, according to AIA numbers.
If industry sales reach $200 billion this year, that would beat Douglass’s forecast last December, when he saw deliveries of $195.4 billion this year.
"Sales could very well go over $200 billion," said Douglass, who is resigning from the AIA leadership post he has held for years. He is in discussions with several potential new employers, he said, but nothing final has been decided.
If sales reach $200 billion this year, Douglass said, that would be a tenfold increase from the $20 billion when Douglass began his career life in 1963, he said.
Over those years, he noted, the industry has been transformed markedly, shifting from 85 percent sales going to the military. Now, 74 percent of sales are to commercial customers, with just one-fourth of sales to space and defense buyers.
In a media briefing at AIA headquarters near the Pentagon, Douglass made several other points:
- The aerospace industry workforce is rife with people in their 50s who are heading for retirement, meaning that replacements must be found now to learn the trade. The FAA, Department of Defense (DOD), Department of Transportation and other agencies are in the same position, he noted.
- The FAA must increase funding to finance the next-generation air traffic control system, "and we’ve got to be brutally honest about what it’s going to cost, and" get the new system on line on schedule. And "clearly NASA has not invested at the level" needed in aeronautics programs.
- Streamlined export regulations recently created for shipments to the United Kingdom are a good step.
- DOD procurement programs staffing needs to be beefed up, and changes must be made in federal nomination procedures for senior-level positions. Also, pay levels for senior positions should be raised, because many skilled people can’t afford to take government jobs when private sector jobs pay so much more.
- There are many protests of DOD contract awards for military hardware because requests for proposals are in many instances poorly written, not because contractors are desperate to win contracts because there is so little new work.
- The low point in DOD acquisitions had to be when an Air Force procurement official, Darleen Druyun, negotiated a tanker-planes lease-purchase deal with a contractor while at the same time negotiating with the contractor to get a job with the firm. The $23.5 billion deal later was canceled.