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Lockheed CEO Stevens: U.S. Risks Space Leadership Without Increased Funding

By | April 16, 2007

      The United States risks losing its military dominance in space, and its preeminence as an explorer of the heavens, if more funding isn’t provided for programs in the void beyond Earth, according to Robert J. Stevens, Lockheed Martin Corp. [LMT] chairman, president and CEO.

      “Put simply: There is no substitute or alternative to military dominance in space… and this conviction should guide our course for the next 50 years,” Stevens argued. Further, “I would argue that our civil space mission, too, is key to America’s strength.”

      Stevens spoke at the 23rd National Space Symposium in Colorado Springs, Colo.

      Focusing on the efforts of NASA, Stevens asserted that civil space exploration “represents the better angels of our nature — our yearning for knowledge and truth. Some have suggested that Americans no longer get excited about space exploration. Yet, I wonder how our citizens will feel if we let our top spacefaring status drift… and find ourselves watching other nations’ dazzling achievements instead of our own.”

      He noted that NASA Administrator Michael Griffin has warned that the United States is about to lose is foremost position in space, cautioning that the huge gap between retiring the space shuttles fleet in 2010 and the advent of the Orion-Ares next-generation space vehicle in the middle of the next decade will mean years when Americans literally can’t get off the ground, much less maintain a commanding position in space. (Please see Space & Missile Defense Report, Monday April 9, 2007, page 1.)

      Stevens agrees with Griffin that it will be a profound loss for Americans to see other nations take the lead in space programs. At a minimum, “this could lead to a situation where other countries with space aspirations start looking for new partners,” he predicted. But “I, for one, am not ready to pass the torch, and I respectfully suggest that we all rethink the wisdom of allowing a 4-year gap in human access to space. I think America should be rekindling the flame and lighting the way.”

      NASA last year chose Lockheed, the largest defense contractor, to build the next-generation Orion crew exploration vehicle, and Lockheed also has built military and civil- space-exploration hardware.

      Recognizing this, Stevens said his comments might seem to be expected of a contractor, merely an attempt to drum up more business.

      “I’m mindful that this argument may seem disingenuous or self-serving,” he observed. “Lockheed Martin is obviously privileged to be a major contractor. I’m not talking about [ladling] on money without accountability or largess in an environment that does not warrant additional investment. Investment opportunities must be earned.”

      Stevens said Lockheed understands all this.

      “I assure you — we get this,” he said, “our company, our partners, our competitors. And we are all committed to redoubling our efforts to provide realistic estimates and hard-nosed execution. We want to be partners in this process you can count on.

      “But the funding issue goes way beyond any company or industry aspirations. It’s at the core of our nation’s ability to do what needs to be done.”

      As Stevens spoke, Congress was considering budget measures that would leave a $500 million or so decline in funds for the Missile Defense Agency (MDA), and a similar amount in the NASA budget for the fiscal year ending Sept. 30, 2008.

      “Over the years we may have grown somewhat accustomed to U.S. predominance in space… but that role has never really been guaranteed,” Stevens warned. “And today, we see increasing challenges to our previously unchallenged leadership.”

      From the Cold War days when just two nations, the United States and the former Soviet Union, had access to space, currently a multiplicity of countries are developing ever- greater space capabilities, Stevens observed, noting that commercial launch services can be obtained in India, Israel, Ukraine, Kazakstan, and other nations.

      While it may be a welcome event that more nations are joining the space club, nonetheless, “when it comes to national security space, our nation must hold the high ground — preserving unquestioned superiority, and protecting our range of space assets,” Stevens asserted.

      His comments came after China in January used a ground-based missile to demolish one of its own aging weather satellites, creating a huge field of dangerous space junk and a disquieting concern that China now is able to demolish U.S. and allied satellites at will, temporarily or partially blinding American military forces (perhaps as Chinese forces storm Taiwan to take it captive). China also “painted” a U.S. military satellite with a laser beam from a ground-based laser.

      “The stakes remain great, perhaps greater than they have ever been, and the world is still an unpredictable place — whether we’re talking about efforts to jam or disable or interrupt our current systems … or get new missiles into space … or kill a satellite,” Stevens stated.

      He proposed four basic principles as the United States confronts this dismaying reality:

      First, there is no substitute for adequate financial support. Money, in sufficient quantities, must be provided. The United States “cannot preserve space leadership without sustained investment,” he noted. “Funding stability is key and we should all work to deliver the kind of performance that reinforces this stability. For customers this means focusing early on system definition and requirements discipline – because stable requirements lead to a more executable program. For industry this means assembling core competencies, processes, and leadership in the supply chain to better discharge the program plan and meet commitments.

      “Programs that are meeting commitments with stable and managed requirements prove to be the best candidates for sustained funding support, and we together hold many of the keys to this virtuous cycle. I also believe that, as crucial as it is in a constrained budget environment to make the most of the resources we have, there is ultimately a point when doing more simply demands more.”

      He noted that NASA, in attempting to assemble the funds for the vision of returning to the moon, Mars and beyond, had to make some hard choices.

      To place matters in perspective, Stevens noted that “at $17.3 billion, NASA’s proposed budget for 2008 is significantly less than annual sales of candy and gum. It’s less than half what Americans spend on their pets. In fact, this year, Americans spent about $17 billion just to celebrate Valentines Day.”

      Or, to put it another way, “You could double NASA’s budget and it would still only cost each American about 32 cents a day. Thirty-two cents a day to reintroduce humanity to a galaxy of wonder. Thirty-two cents a day.”

      Not only is more money required, but enough money is required to produce the vehicles that can operate, safely, in the harsh hot-and-cold vacuum of space, Stevens noted.

      It is critical to recognize that space is different, unforgiving, and to provide the funds to counter those challenges, he said. “When we address these elements and follow the formula — the ‘recipe’ for space — when we have sufficient test equipment to stress the entire system during development, when we provision adequate spares and qualification units, when we assure adequate schedule margin, and when we budget for management reserve — space becomes much less broken,” he said, responding to claims of critics who say that it is. “In space, there are no shortcuts, no quick fixes,” he warned. “When we follow the recipe, we succeed.”

      He also said, as Griffin and many others including lawmakers have noted, it is crucial to attract more young people to careers in sciences and engineering.

      The question now is where NASA, MDA and contractors such as Lockheed are going to obtain replacements for thousands of about-to-retire employees.

      “Even as the U.S. aerospace sector struggles to replenish our workforce, there is no doubt that China is racing ahead to build the technical wave of the future, with 50 percent of Chinese undergraduates getting degrees in natural science or engineering,” Stevens observed.

      If “the aerospace sector wants to remain attractive to our nation’s best and brightest, we need to rekindle the energy and excitement that surrounded the new frontier,” he said.

      Finally, he pointed to the “need to renew our tolerance for, and understanding of, risk… and remind others that, as we pursue the unknown, the inevitable missteps along the way are part of the process of discovery. It is how we learn and adapt.” He is not, he said, “advocating reckless endeavors, foolish pursuits, or the abandonment of good process and sound practice.”

      However, “all tests that don’t confirm the hypothesis are not necessarily failures. Some results that were not in keeping with expectations have proven extremely valuable and worthy of our effort. And, most importantly, setbacks are not the product of poor character or lack of integrity by those involved in the process.”

      “At the end of the day, this discussion is not about NASA … it’s not about the U.S. military … it’s not about any single company or segment of the private sector,” Stevens said. “It’s about America — who we are as a people, and what we aspire to be as a nation.”

      Although it may be true that the United States “can’t go back to the no-holds barred approach of the ’50s and ’60s,” at the same time it also is true that “we should not wait for the crisis of a modern day Sputnik to unite us and galvanize action. We, here, are the ones who can most make this happen … and our countdown has already begun.”

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