The Citizens for Space Exploration, a multistate grass roots organization established to keep NASA’s exploration programs funded is in Washington, D.C., this week, making its best case to the 113th Congress.
They’ll remind lawmakers of how much our investments in space exploration improve our lives, our well-being and our future. Sadly, though, this has become a sort of annual booster shot whose effectiveness wears off too quickly as the annual federal budget process bogs down in partisan acrimony.
Even with the heroic efforts of citizen advocates like this, NASA’s funding has gone steadily backward in recent years as a result of continuing resolutions, omnibus bills and sequestration that delay, dilute and ultimately cripple multiyear programs. Nonetheless, this kind of advocacy is essential and it must be done every year, again and again, as long as NASA is required to annually justify the programs they are charged with. Without them, we would truly be lost in space.
There is, however, a different feeling about all of this, this year.
While Washington tries to decide if America can afford to lead the world in space exploration for at least another year, the space industry itself is adapting to make sure America stays in the race.
Call it Space Race 2.0. The newest players have catchy names like Virgin Galactic, SpaceX, Sierra Nevada and Blue Origin. Some are more traditional like Boeing, Lockheed Martin, ATK and Orbital Sciences.
They all share the common belief that we can change the way we go to space, and drive down the cost in the process. But perhaps the best news is that they are sharing in the cost of development and not relying solely on the taxpayer to bear the full burden.
This year is shaping up to be a potential tipping point for space enterprise on all levels. These space developers are driving a new generation of space systems, technologies and services to market.
Customers, including NASA, are lining up.
SpaceX is methodically setting the pace for commercial access to space while resupplying the International Space Station with its Falcon-9 launcher and Dragon capsule.
Orbital Sciences Corporation is touting practical, affordable space access alternatives that better fit the current fiscal environment. Two weeks ago, the company’s medium-class launcher, Antares, made its first launch setting the stage for a demonstration flight to the ISS in late summer.
Virgin Galactic moved closer to opening the space tourism market with its recent powered flight demonstration, which will lead to a flight to space, later this year. More than 600 passengers have enlisted to fly the Virgin skies at $200,000 per seat.
In developments beyond Earth orbit, the Inspiration Mars Foundation, led by astronaut philanthropist Dennis Tito, has announced its plan to send an American man and woman on a trajectory to within 100 miles of Mars, returning to Earth in only 501 days.
On a more methodical note, NASA is steadily shaping the future of deep space exploration with its massive Space Launch System and Orion capsule. Boeing, Lockheed Martin, and ATK provide the nucleus of a formidable contractor team that will see their vehicle fly in less than five ears.
None of this would happen without the decades of taxpayer investment in space technology developed by NASA and the space industry.
The work of advocacy groups like Citizens for Space Exploration truly does make a difference. But the ace in the hole may just be the space industry itself, in its ability to adapt and shape the future through innovation and commercial enterprise. Hopefully members of Congress will recognize that the tide is rising, and that it is time for America to set sail, once again.
Jeff Carr is the senior vice president of aerospace communications for Griffin Communications Group. He is the former director of communications for the United Space Alliance and was the director of public affairs and news chief at the Johnson Space Center.