THE BLOG
06/15/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Space: The "New West" Frontier

On April 15, President Obama visited the swing-vote state of Florida to host a Conference charting the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's (NASA) new vision for America's future in space and "the new technologies, new jobs, and new industries it will create."

"Let me start by being extremely clear, I am 100 percent committed to the mission of NASA and it's vision because broading our capabilities in space will continue to serve our society in ways we can scarcely image," the President told the Kennedy Space Center crowd.

But the timing of the invitation-only space summit for the Western U.S. aerospace industry seemed odd: The conference was scheduled to take place on the last day of the internationally prestigious 26th National Space Symposium in Colorado. And almost as a warning, the Whitehouse announced the Florida space conference on March 7th, a day before the California Space Week event was to begin where participants would meet with officials from agencies including the White House, Department of State, NASA, Department of Defense, Department of Transportation, and Department of Commerce.

Why is this significant?

California and Colorado rank #1 and #2 respectively in private space industry workers, as well as designing almost all the spacecraft launched by the United States. And these, along with other western space states, will loose the most jobs under the proposed shut-down of the $8.2 billion Orion spaceship and Ares 1 rocket project for the Moon-bound Constellation program.

Or, maybe not.

Obama's changes in the mission of NASA could mean a windfall for the commercial space travel industry. And that's where the West could win in the long run if the "new" NASA is funded adequately.

In his 2011 budget, the president zeroed-out Constellation and the Bush directive to get us back to the moon by 2020 even though as a candidate he said he "endorses the goal of sending human missions to the moon by 2020, as a precursor in an orderly progression to missions to more distant destinations, including Mars."

Orion and Ares 1 were to replace NASA's three-ship shuttle fleet, now slated for retirement at the end of the year. The technologies developed for long-term Moon missions were suppose to serve as templates for Mars expeditions. However, an independent panel headed by former Lockheed Martin Chief Executive Norman Augustine concluded that the program would not be ready in time to serve its planned role. But in a Space News interview published on August 24, 2009 after delivering his results to the administration, Augustine said "NASA has suffered for many years, and does so today, from a mismatch between goals that have been authorized, and the funding that's been provided to reach those goals." The panel said that NASA would need a boost of $4.5 billion to $6 billion a year for Constellation to achieve its goals - which had been under-funded from the start. The conclusion by Washington was to kill it, even thought the shuttle was still to be retired. To date, some$10 billion has been spent on the program and NASA will spend another $2.5 billion to settle the Constellation's contracts. And when the shuttles are retired later this year, billions of dollars will be spent to have Russia fly U.S. astronauts to the International Space Station at $51 million per seat.

But the Constellation cancellation encountered bipartisan resistance. More than two dozen Apollo-era veterans signed a letter calling the plan a "misguided." "For the United States, the leading spacefaring nation for nearly half a century, to be without carriage to low Earth orbit and with no human exploration capability to go beyond Earth orbit for an indeterminate time into the future, destines our nation to become one of second- or even third-rate stature," the astronauts said in the letter.

"The Constellation Program, and specifically the Orion project, is a centerpiece of Colorado's aerospace sector, creating nearly 1,000 jobs here since 2006 and inspiring a new generation of engineers, scientists, teachers and students," said Colorado's Gov. Bill Ritter in a letter to the White House. "To abruptly change direction like this will lead to significant dislocation and distress at a precarious time for the economies of our nation and our state.

U.S. Senators Mark Udall and Michael Bennet also voiced concern, noting it was premature from a national security point of view: "We understand that a DOD assessment of launch program cost impacts will not be completed until summer 2010, but it seems clear that the cancellation of Constellation will result in at least some of the costs of overhead and underutilized industry resources being passed on to DOD."

The critics had a mild effect.

The administration decided to pursue a "flexible path" to get astronauts back into space quicker and build a slimmed-down version of the Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle that would only be used as a crew lifeboat on the International Space Station. Other highlights include:

  • Increase the NASA's budget by6 billion over the next five years and spend3 billion to develop the "heavy lift" rocket by 2015.
  • Launch robotic exploration missions to scout locations for missions to Mars, to prepare for human landing by mid-2030's.
  • Develop in-space refueling and inflatable habitats for living in space.
  • Spend6 billion on Commercial Crew and Commercial Cargo craft.

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden had early expressed concern that the end of shuttle and Orion manned space flight program could result in 10,000 jobs lost a the Kennedy Space Center and other key bases. Obama told the Florida crowd that he was proposing $40 million "to develop a plan for regional economic growth and job creation and I expect this plan to reach my desk by August 15th." The President believes that launches of new commercial rockets will produce 2,500 more jobs along the "space coast" by 2012 than Constellation would have created.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the space industry employed nearly 263,000 Americans in 2008 with average salaries of $90,000 per year. And a new report from the Virginia-based consulting firm Tauri Group, estimates that the new NASA Commercial Crew and Cargo Program will result in an average of 11,800 direct jobs per year over the next five years.

Despite the recession, the global space industry grew 40 percent over the last five years, according to the Foundation's Space Report 2010 released this month at the 26th National Space Symposium in Colorado. "Over the past five years, the global space economy has grown almost 40 percent, reflecting increasing commercialization, significant globalization, and expansion of military and civil space programs. Plus, the industry showed remarkable resiliency over the tumultuous past 12 months, demonstrating continued expansion into 2010," sates the report. The global industry reached $261.6 billion last year, according to the report, up from $251 billion in revenue in 2007.

Space Cowboys

Despite the administration's concern about the swing voters of Florida, it's the western states that have morphed into the center of the new "commercial space race."

Draw a line from Boulder to Los Angeles; follow the California coast south to the Mexican border; follow the border to Las Cruces, New Mexico; and, draw a line north back to Boulder. This "Turquoise Triangle" encompasses Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, Southern California, and Southern Nevada - five regions pursuing their own specialty economic space exploration opportunities. It is within the hot-spots of Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico, and Southern California that the equipment design, spacecraft testing, and even the first launch of commercial passenger space travel continues to emerge from the most unlikely places. And the intertwining connection between these areas grows tighter with every new space mission - both unmanned and manned. The western players involved included Lockheed Martin Space Systems, Boeing Satellite Systems, United Launch Alliance, Ball Aerospace, Northrop Grumman Space Technology, Kaman Aerospace Corp., Paragon Space Development, Honeywell Aerospace, and even the Air Force Space Command.

California ranks #1 in economic impact with 40 percent of the U.S. and 21 percent of the world's space enterprise, according to an April 2009 study by the California Space Authority. Total annual contributions to the state exceed $76 billion, sustaining more than 370,000 jobs, a greater impact than any other industry, including entertainment, tourism and agriculture. The Santa Monica-based X Prize Foundation captured world headlines on October 4, 2004 when the world's first private vehicle flew into space to win a $10 million Ansari X PRIZE.

Total space industry revenue for No. 2 Colorado is about $10 billion a year with the average space-industry wage of $102,146, according to the Colorado Springs-based Space Foundation. In Arizona, the space industry generates creates 3,300 Jobs.

The $200 million endeavor by the State of New Mexico to build Spaceport America is one of the West's prime commercial space projects. The 18,000-acre stretch of desert near the White Sands Missile Range is now home of Virgin Galatic, the commercial space travel business of the British billionaire Richard Branson, , and 326 people have already placed reservations for their $200,000 suborbital "space tourism" trips. A study conducted by Futron, an aerospace business research company, predicts that such a commercial space travel industry could generate revenues in excess of $1 billion annually by 2021and

generate close to 6,000 new jobs in New Mexico. The site also hosts the commercial space flight companies of Eclipse, Rocket Racing League, UP Aerospace, Starchaser Industries, Payload Specialties, and Microgravity Enterprises - all companies in various stages of development of manned commercial space flight.

Meanwhile, Las Vegas-based Bigelow Aerospace is developing a series of inflatable orbital complexes with two prototypes already in orbit since 2007. Founded by Robert T. Bigelow of Budget Suites hotel chain fame, the company hopes that launches in 2014 will result in a private space station that could house 12 astronauts - twice as many as the International Space Station. Plans call for a second, even larger Bigelow station two years later, with room for 24 astronauts. The company is counting on commercial rockets to carry people to and from the Bigelow stations.

NASA's is budgeting billions of dollars to encourage private firms to provide transport to and from the space station. Part of the new plan is to spend $5.8 billion on Commercial Crew and an additional $312 million on Commercial Cargo from FY2011 to FY2015. To kick-start this entrepreneurial work, NASA has awarded $50 million to seven companies for the new Commercial Crew and Cargo Program. And all the companies have commercial space facilities in the West:

  • Sierra Nevada Corporation received 20 million for a seven-person spacecraft known as Dreamchaser which will launch on Atlas V.
  • The Boeing Company received 18 million for development for a seven-person crew capsule for low Earth orbit transportation.
  • United Launch Alliance, a joint venture of Boeing and Lockheed Martin that operates the Atlas and Delta rockets, received6.7 million to begin developing an emergency detection system for launch systems.
  • Blue Origin, started by Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos, received3.7 million to develop a composite crew test module and a launch escape system for its commercial spaceflight vehicle.
  • Orbital Sciences was awarded 171 million in a follow-on contract for International Space Station missions, and is preparing its Taurus II rocket and Cygnus capsule for initial launches in 2011.
  • Paragon Space Development Corporation received 1.4 million in for an air revitalization system for use in crewed spacecraft.
  • SpaceX, founded in June 2002 by PayPal co-founder Elon Musk, received278 million in a follow-on contract for International Space Station missions, and is preparing its Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon capsule for initial launches this year.

Lay-offs?

At this point, the administration's plan to reinvent NASA requires Congressional approval - and funding - to proceed. Canceling Constellation - and the end of the shuttle program in December - could lead to thousands of unemployed at some of America's biggest aerospace contractors. For example, the Boeing Co. won a $515 million contract in 2007, that could have been worth up to $1.1 billion, to produce the upper stage of the Ares I launch vehicle; Phoenix-based Honeywell was contracted to provide $700 million worth of Orion's navigation system, mission computer, and supporting software; California-based Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne was awarded a $1.2 billion contract in 2007 to develop the upper stages of the Ares I and Ares V launch vehicles. The company also makes the space shuttle main engines; and, after laying-off 550 workers in October, Utah-based ATK Space Systems - the company that builds booster rockets for the retiring space shuttle - began laying off another 420 workers in January. ATK had also been awarded a $62.5 million sub-contract to deliver the launch abort motor for the Constellation project.

Colorado-based Lockheed Martin Space Systems could be the biggest loser: They won a $3.9 billion contract in 2006 to design and build Orion. Lockheed officials, who said Orion is ready for a first test flight in a few weeks, issued a statement saying company officials are "keenly disappointed" because cancellation of Orion would "needlessly sacrifice" what Lockheed officials said has been a significant investment in technologies and facilities. "Nearly 4,000 people and more than 100 commercial companies across the country have worked diligently on the Orion project," the statement said.

Whether there are huge layoffs, and whether there is a huge spike in funding or not, the western states' commercial space companies have made it clear they are going to the final frontier.