Science News

Executives concerned about U.S. dominance in space

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colorado (Reuters) - The United States may lose its competitive edge in space unless it improves how it buys equipment, shores up its industrial base, and makes a firm commitment to human spaceflight, industry executives warned at a conference this week.

The U.S. space shuttle Atlantis lifts off pad 39B at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida September 9, 2006. REUTERS/Scott Audette

At the same time, companies must become more innovative and flexible to respond to rapidly evolving threats, industry executives and military officials said.

U.S. commercial and military space has grown dramatically as a sector in recent years and in 2008 generated revenue of $257 billion, but tighter defense budgets and the global recession are likely to pose challenges in coming years.

The United States and Russia still dominate the space business, but many more players such as China, Iran and now North Korea, are developing their own space capabilities.

Vice Admiral Carl Mauney, deputy commander of U.S. Strategic Command, which oversees space operations, said 10 countries now had space-launch capabilities, compared to just two -- Russia and the United States -- a few years ago.

Jim Maser, president of Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne, a unit of United Technologies Corp, told industry executives on Wednesday that the U.S. government lacked “an integrated, stable road map for space,” which meant industry was involved in a “kind of guessing game” as to future priorities.

“In the absence of that, we’re placing bets, and in some cases, blind bets,” Maser said.

Maser, whose business unit derives about 50 percent of revenue from work on human spaceflight programs, said his greatest concern was that the Obama administration would fail to make a long-term commitment to human spaceflight and provide stable funding to ensure a smooth transition from the NASA space shuttle to the successor Constellation program.

“A prolonged period without U.S. human spaceflight would mean that we could lose that capability,” Maser told Reuters at the Space Foundation’s annual National Space Symposium.


Taxpayers for Common Sense, a Washington-based watchdog group, this week reported that U.S. government spending on unclassified satellites and space programs soared 42 percent to $16.9 billion in fiscal 2009, but the funding was spread across the government with no central authority to track spending.

Spending on secret intelligence and military satellite programs is estimated to total another $13 billion more, said Micah Walter-Range, an analyst with the Space Foundation.

Better oversight and a transparent budget was important given the troubled history of space programs, said Taxpayers for Common Sense, noting 12 space programs had racked up cost growth of more than 200 percent in the past five years.

Mauney said U.S. Strategic Command was focused on space, advocated for new capabilities, and worked well with other agencies on operational issues, but there had been many studies on how best to coordinate space policy across the government.

“I think it would be a good thing for this new administration to take a look at our space policies and alignment, look at the studies and then the president and the (defense) secretary can determine, along with Congress, how best to do it, Mauney told reporters at the conference.

Given the high cost of developing and fielding satellites, Mauney said it would be even more important in coming years for the U.S. military to collaborate with other government agencies, industry and other countries, especially on improving knowledge of what was happening in space.

The current oversight structure within the Pentagon splits classified intelligence programs from those focused on weather, communications, and other unclassified satellite programs.

That structure “inadvertently created some additional coordination steps which at times can slow things down,” Colonel Thomas Doyne, deputy director of space programs and policy for Defense Secretary Robert Gates, told Reuters.

But it also generated different perspectives and a more thorough understanding of programs, he said in an interview.


The space industry is also exploring ways to innovate and respond to signals that the Pentagon will focus more on expanding the capabilities of existing systems rather than shoveling money into a spate of new development programs.

William Schuster, chief operating officer of GeoEye Inc, one of two companies that provide satellite imagery to the military, also urged the Pentagon to expand its use of cheaper commercial products.

David Thompson, chief executive of Orbital Sciences Corp, said the biggest challenges facing the industry were “our own deficiencies in space architecture choices, acquisition practices and program implementation performance.”

“If we do not shorten our space system acquisition cycles and better control their costs, other countries will inevitably narrow the substantial competitive advantages we possess today,” Thompson said.

Reporting by Andrea Shalal-Esa; Editing by Bernard Orr