New Space Age Needs New Tools

Posted May 6, 2005 at 2:17pm

Today, we are at the beginning of a second Space Age. The first Space Age was born of the Cold War. America’s desire to beat the Soviet Union in the space race propelled the U.S. space program to incredible technological achievements. We put satellites and people into orbit. We sent probes throughout the solar system and humans to the moon in the span of a decade. But after this spurt of growth, a lack of vision and leadership kept the U.S. space program from achieving its exploration potential. For the next three decades human space flight remained in low earth orbit while we relied on robotic probes to explore our planetary neighbors. But at the same time, commercial launch technologies matured and the world gradually became dependent on space assets. Satellites are an integral part of the navigation, communication and entertainment infrastructures we use every day.

The second Space Age must feature exploring the universe while achieving synergy between our civil, commercial and national security space programs. We will need a new set of “Rules and Tools” for this second Space Age. The old Cold War policies, infrastructure and funding mechanisms will not get us where we need to go. A new mandate of international cooperation in space exploration will be the basis for a global success. The United States, as the global leader, must lead its international partners in this exciting new endeavor to further mankind’s exploration of the heavens and improve our life on this planet.

The president’s vision for space exploration was the first step to putting in place the new rules and tools for the second Space Age. It calls for a sustainable space exploration program that will return humans to the Moon before venturing to Mars. The American people asked the president to provide leadership and a vision for space — and he did. Now we in Congress need to meet the challenge before us — we must pass a National Aeronautics and Space Administration authorization bill. As the new chairman of the House Science subcommittee on space and aeronautics, the NASA authorization bill is my highest priority this year.

Last year, the Appropriations Committees’ conference report for NASA contained language that referred to Congressional action on the president’s vision for space exploration. The language was: “the initiative deserves and requires the deliberative benefit of the Congress. To this end, the conferees (of the Appropriations Committees) call upon the appropriate Committees of jurisdiction … for action to specifically endorse the initiative and provide authorization and guidance.”

There is no question that NASA must continue to restructure and align itself with its core mission of space exploration in this second Space Age. Tough choices need to be made and we have the leadership to make those choices. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) and Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) are working hard in the Senate, as are Rep. Mark Udall (D-Colo.) and I in the House under the leadership of Chairman Sherwood Boehlert (R-N.Y.). Michael Griffin, the new NASA administrator, is already tackling the tough issues that lay ahead. But time is short. We realistically have about 40 months to enshrine the new structure and reforms that will guide our space program for the next 40 years.

An authorization bill is the proper way to establish Congress’ intent for NASA. Congress must clearly articulate our intent for NASA’s structure, roles and missions for the second Space Age. As welcome as emergency funds attached to last year’s omnibus appropriations bill were (and they were very welcome), we owe the American people and the NASA work force transparency and predictability each and every year.

Congress must address the retirement of the space shuttle in 2010, completion of the assembly of the International Space Station, and the transition to a crew exploration vehicle. NASA needs a human capital strategy for the 21st century, an expanded prize authority to encourage space entrepreneurs and more efficient ways to augment its launch capabilities with the help of our commercial space industry.

Before it trims the work force or shutters infrastructure, NASA must have an overall strategic vision. For NASA to develop its grand strategy there must first be strategies for Aeronautics, Earth and space sciences that parallel the vision for space exploration. NASA plays a key role in these areas, but so do other federal agencies. We need to clearly delineate which agency does what and how the agencies interact. Perhaps ongoing interagency coordinating committees could help focus scarce funds and prioritize critical missions, for the benefit of all.

With well-defined missions NASA will be able to develop a 21st-century human capital strategy that maximizes the potential of its work force. Recently, I visited the Kennedy Space Center as the first of my planned visits to all the NASA centers this Congress. I was impressed with the enthusiasm, dedication and the technical skills of the work force. I spoke with a number of the workers who are preparing the space shuttle for return to flight, processing components of the ISS, and conducting first rate life-science research. The NASA community is made up of a talented work force with skills that America cannot afford to lose. We must ensure, as we move into the second Space Age, that NASA has a modern personnel program that can recruit, train and retain these skilled workers.

The United States has the foundation for a bold national space program. We have a space exploration vision and the people who will make it succeed. But they need new rules and tools for this second Space Age. So do the future engineers and scientists who must be inspired and drawn from today’s classrooms. There are problems to be solved and issues to be resolved. We in Congress must ensure that we have a successful NASA and a thriving commercial aerospace sector to fuel the technology engine that maintains America’s leadership in the global endeavor to explore the cosmos.

Rep. Ken Calvert (R-Calif.) is chairman of the Science subcommittee on space and aeronautics.