Can US Spaceflight Innovation Survive Deep Budget Cuts?

The logo of NASA, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.
The logo of NASA, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. (Image credit: NASA)

PASADENA, Calif. — A U.S. space industry stuck with the "tyranny of the rocket equation" faces tighter budgets and possibly several decades without a major revolution in spaceflight technologies.

Those sobering conclusions came from spaceflight industry experts in the opening talk here at the Space 2012 conference by the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics on Tuesday (Sept. 11). Space systems such as weather satellites, GPS satellites, and communications networks have become necessary to sustaining the lifestyle millions of Americans take for granted — but the U.S. faces the challenge of maintaining such capabilities while investing in new innovations aimed at cutting costs rather than necessarily boosting space technologies.

"I predict that the next 30 or 40 years for the sustainability of space is about driving more efficiency and economics into the technology we have today," said Roger Krone, president of network and space systems at Boeing.

The conference began with the arrival of a U.S. Air Force honor guard and the playing of the U.S. national anthem to commemorate the anniversary of the September 11 attacks of 2001, followed by a moment of silence for Neil Armstrong, first person to walk on the moon. The somber opening seemed to carry over into the panel discussion of how to innovate in a cost-cutting era.

Krone referred to the "tyranny of the rocket equation," a quote by NASA astronaut and flight engineer Don Pettit, that describes the laws of physics that still rules over spaceflight and keeps launch costs high. A true revolution in spaceflight might find a way to break that "tyranny," but until then Krone said that innovation would have to focus on making existing technology better and cheaper.

The U.S. military faces the problem of increasing reliance upon GPS navigation and communications satellites for guiding its missiles, aircraft, drones and soldiers on the battlefield, even as its space budget shrinks. Such military systems must survive a space environment that has become crowded with more than 1,000 satellites and growing numbers of both government and commercial missions.

"We can't live without it," said Lt. Gen. Ellen Pawlikowski, commander of the Space and Missile Systems Center in the Air Force Space Command at the Los Angeles Air Force Base, Calif. "It's a congested and contested environment, and we have to do it in an affordable way."

The U.S. military has already begun looking toward smaller, cheaper satellites that can launch in shorter timeframes than the seven to 10 years required for major commercial satellites, Pawlikowski said. She expressed a wish for innovation that could drive down costs for existing technologies rather than push the technological envelope. [Military Seeks Cheap Satellites to Aid Soldiers]

Aerospace giants such as Boeing and Lockheed Martin face an added dilemma because many of their programs have shifted from a design to production mode — a time when many aerospace engineers face job cuts or simply lose interest. The U.S. companies want to figure out how to keep those skilled engineers employed and productive.

"We need a good balance of production and a good set of folks still working in design," said Mark Valerio vice president and general manager of Lockheed Martin.

Charles Elachi, director of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, pointed as encouragement to NASA's successes in the past decade despite generally tight budgets. He described the innovations that went into launching and landing NASA's Curiosity Mars rover a "series of steps" by both NASA and dozens of contractor or sub-contractor companies.

"Innovation doesn't have to be expensive," Elachi said.

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Contributing Writer

Jeremy Hsu is science writer based in New York City whose work has appeared in Scientific American, Discovery Magazine, Backchannel, and IEEE Spectrum, among others. He joined the and Live Science teams in 2010 as a Senior Writer and is currently the Editor-in-Chief of Indicate Media.  Jeremy studied history and sociology of science at the University of Pennsylvania, and earned a master's degree in journalism from the NYU Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program. You can find Jeremy's latest project on Twitter