14 March 2010
News - Other (None)
President Obama's Budget Proposal
Floridian space industry faces uncertainty and/or hope
by Peter Wainwright
by G.B. Leatherwood and Peter Wainwright

In mid-April President Barack Obama will share his budget proposal with the rest of the country, with special emphasis on the US space program and plans for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). Toward that end, Obama will hold a conference in Florida to discuss his proposed budget.

Obama will be requesting US$18.7 billion, which is a larger amount than previous spending plans. But what Obama is leaving out of his budget proposal that has the residents of Brevard County, FL, worried.

A presidential visit is a significant event, and for these Floridians, it’s also a nerve-wracking one. They will hear about their future — or as some fear, lack of one.

Brevard County is home to the Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral Air Force Base, sites of the US launch facilities and home of the Space Shuttle fleet, and is colloquially known as “the space coast.” But Obama’s proposal does not include funding for the Constellation program, designed to replace the shuttle after its retirement at the end of the current mission schedule in 2010.

Residents claim that not only will thousands of jobs, estimated to be 7000 in Brevard County alone, be lost, but also the US will fall even farther behind the rest of the world in the development of space technology and exploration, and the highly skilled and dedicated employees of NASA will be out of work. The Constellation program would have returned US astronauts to the moon by 2020; US$9 billion has already been spent on this project.

The program, begun during the Bush administration, has been strongly criticized for depending on sixty-year-old technology and for being long behind schedule and over budget. However, since there is no other replacement anywhere near ready for deployment, supporters of the program are vocal in their opposition to the proposed budget.

No other replacement from NASA, that is. Obama’s vision for space development relies on commercial space companies, and space vehicle development companies in particular, picking up the slack. Technically, commercial development of space is what NASA was always meant to be encouraging, but with billions going into its own programs, there’s never been a strong incentive to compete against the government agency...and every reason to jockey for the government-funded contracts on offer.

It’s certainly nerve wracking for companies in an industry almost entirely dependent on the public sector to conceive of transitioning to a private commercial environment. But the act of NASA stepping aside and giving new entrants a chance to step up has the potential to convert a relatively moribund space industry into an explosively expanding growth industry – with all the job potential and economic vigor that implies.

Will Florida remain a center of space activity, or will jobs and companies move to other parts of the US or overseas? Probably a bit of both – a smaller wedge of a bigger pie is still significant, and Florida already has a concentration of space talent that should give it an edge. Whether or not it keeps that edge may depend on whether it can shake off the safety blanket of government funding and grab new commercial opportunities before rival industrial centers without the same tradition of public sector dependency get there first.

Gentlemen, start your engines.
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Peter Wainwright 14 March 2010
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