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Obama Administration Must Prepare For New Kind Of Space Race

January 13, 2009

The Obama administration may be facing a new kind of space race with broader scientific, national-security and business implications.

Sweeping policy, budget and institutional changes will be necessary to protect America’s “perishable” lead in satellites, rockets and space exploration, according to a report released Monday by an industry group.

The U.S.’s priorities need to adapt to a changing reality in which more countries are pushing into space for political and industrial reasons, said the Aerospace Industries Association, who produced the study.

The U.S. government spends an estimated $100 billion annually on space efforts, but countries like China, India, Japan, Russia and the European Union have all increased their own spending and are catching up in technical prowess.

Marion Blakey, the association’s president and chief executive, said in a very real sense, the ‘space race’ is far from over. “We might not be racing, but our global competitors certainly are.”

U.S. goals have been hampered partly by competing agendas among federal agencies, which have become tangled in turf battles, the study said. A prominent example is longstanding friction between Pentagon brass and intelligence officials over designing and operating spy satellites.

The study says creating a high-level office to coordinate between civilian, military and intelligence agencies would help the U.S. achieve its objectives.

The report also recommends significantly closer coordination of government and commercial initiatives in imaging, collection of weather data and human space flight in order to maintain continued U.S. dominance in space. Industry officials contend it is necessary to ensure U.S. pre-eminence in gathering battlefield data and keeping track of terrorists.

But many of the current challenges for the U.S. revolve around more-complex issues, rather than concentrating on a clearly defined goal such as reaching the moon or even sending a manned spaceship to Mars. Such issues entail protecting satellites from hostile actions, easing export-control laws to keep U.S. companies competitive in the global marketplace for space hardware and attracting an experienced work force.

The main objectives in the U.S. are to give aerospace contractors enhanced capabilities to deal with such emerging space issues as measuring climate change and launching satellites designed to simultaneously serve government and commercial uses.

The new report recommended immediate fixes to what it called “existing and growing gaps in climate measurements and weather satellite coverage.”

Those familiar with President-elect Barack Obama’s transition team said they are already moving to appoint a top-level council to oversee space initiatives, but it isn’t clear how much authority this group will have to pressure agencies to work together.

Those close to the team say the transition officials are also considering including money for some private-sector, human space-transportation initiatives in the Obama economic-stimulus package.

U.S space dominance will be tested by how American astronauts will get into orbit and beyond.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration must decide whether to speed up development of a replacement for the space shuttle in the next few months, and whether it makes more sense to rely on modified military rockets than current plans to develop a new generation of rockets.

There are also persistent fights over who will design and control the cutting-edge reconnaissance satellites. Both sides are now seeking their own big-ticket programs after years of disagreement over plans for joint Pentagon and spy satellites.

“We need to take a hard look at whether one size fits all for military and intelligence missions,” said Gen. Robert Kehler, head of the Air Force Space Command. “In some cases, I believe it does not.”

Image Caption: Artist concept of Ares I-X and Ares I rockets. (Image credit: NASA)

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