The View From Here

U.S. Government Cuts Hurt Space Industrial Base, National Security, Economic Competitiveness

Written by: developer

One of the more disturbing bits of data in The Space Report 2014 concerns the continued slashing of federal space budgets by the United States. For the first time since the Space Foundation began tracking this data, global government spending on space declined in 2013 – and with most other countries either maintaining or increasing their space spending, the global decline can be laid entirely at the feet of the U.S. government.

This has huge negative implications for the vanishing U.S. space industrial base, U.S. national security and U.S. economic vitality and competitiveness. Of all the places where the feds could be trimming a little fat, it would be hard to pick one that is more harmful to the country overall. If you accept the idea that the best way to work ourselves out of this decade-long economic funk is to grow the economy, then space (and aero) is the one place we should be investing heavily to get the U.S. economy moving again.

The data, for the record: Overall, the global space economy grew by 4 percent in 2013, reaching a record $314.17 billion. Most of this growth was in the commercial sector, where the commercial space products sector grew from $114.55 billion in 2012 to $122.58 billion in 2013, and where the commercial infrastructure sector grew from $112.30 billion in 2012 to $117.49 billion in 2013. The 4 percent growth rate was slower than in recent years, where the growth rate has ranged between 6 and 7 percent. This drag reflects a global 1.7 percent decline in government space spending, driven entirely by a 9.4 percent cut in U.S. government space spending. While the U.S. was cutting its investment in space by nearly 10 percent, outside of the United States government space spending increased by 10.1 percent.

For a country that prides itself in being a leader in all things space, this should be setting off loud alarm bells. If this is not the tipping point that sends the U.S. space industrial base into a death spiral, you can certainly see it from here. In a country that has all but gone hysterical over its dependence on Russia for rocket engines and astronaut transport to and from the ISS, a ten percent decline in investment while competitors are making a ten percent increase in investment should simply be unacceptable.

The United States is budget-cutting itself out of options. If the nation is going to do that, it should do so in full understanding of the impacts.

Unfortunately, the country’s recent track record in this regard has been less than stellar. If you consider the current flap over the RD-180 engine, you can easily understand the political thinking that drove a decision to invest in Russian rocket scientists rather than U.S. rocket scientists. But the potential consequences were clearly not all equally balanced. One of the potential consequences was a loss of U.S. industrial capacity to produce rocket engines – which should have been deemed an unacceptable risk, and mitigated with research and development funding which would have kept U.S. rocket scientists actively engaged in developing the tools, technologies and manufacturing capability needed to “turn on” the production of American-made engines, virtually on demand. Another risk was clearly the “major disagreement with Russia” scenario that has, indeed, come to pass. Again, a trickle of funding to keep American capabilities “warm” would have been wise. The nation’s current scramble for options need not have looked like this, if elected officials had simply exercised a little prudence in protecting a critical national technical capability.

Similarly the gap between the space shuttle retirement and new capabilities – be they governmental or commercial – need not have become such a black hole for the U.S. to fall in. But while headline-weary politicians were anxious, after the loss of Columbia, to bring the shuttle program to a close, they were not equally anxious about national means for launching humans to space. NASA should have been given more money, much sooner, in order to have the next generation astronaut transportation system ready to go when the shuttle retired. Instead America opted for flat budgets and cheap solutions, and is now faced with the bellicose suggestion that we use trampolines to send astronauts to the ISS.

All of this is not to take advantage of 20/20 hindsight to say “I told you so.” Rather, it is to suggest that the consequences of America’s past lack of vision serve as an object lesson in the critical need for foresight at this juncture. Cutting the already woefully underfunded national space enterprise by ten percent is the wrong answer. Cutting the U.S. government space budget from $45.56 billion (2012) to $41.26 billion does almost nothing to help balance a U.S. federal budget of $3.9 trillion. It simply assures that NASA, the U.S. Air Force, NOAA and others are less capable, and the U.S. industrial base is more fragile, than Americans should be willing to accept.

This counsel is not new or particularly original. The Commission on the Future of the United States Aerospace Industry (2002), two “Augustine Commissions” (The Advisory Committee on the Future of the United States Space Program, 1990 and Review of United States Human Space Flight Plans Committee, 2009), the Aldridge Commission (President’s Commission on Implementation of United States Space Exploration Policy, 2004), among many others, have sounded the alarm on declining budgets and U.S. space capabilities. Two more Augustine reports, Rising Above the Gathering Storm (2005) and Rising Above the Gathering Storm-Revisited (2010) were brutally honest in their assessment of the decline in federally funded research and development, and its impact upon our workforce, industrial base and international economic and technologic competitiveness.

The View From Here is that current and planned cuts to U.S. government space budgets do almost nothing to save taxpayer dollars, while further injuring the space industrial base (jobs and manufacturing capabilities lost), national security and technical and economic competitiveness. Strong political leadership is needed to reverse these troubling trends. 

This article is part of Space Watch: July 2014 (Volume: 13, Issue: 7).