Signs of a Renaissance

There may be many problems apparent at NASA and among the U.S. aerospace giants these days, but there also are signs that space exploration is about to undergo a renaissance, with an explosion of creativity unseen in decades.

To explain this conclusion will require telling a personal anecdote, which begins in the mid-1980s.
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A Shrinking, Timid Industry

The May 2 announcement that Boeing and Lockheed Martin are forming a joint venture to build and launch rockets for the U.S. government is another sign the established sector of the American rocket industry continues to shrink and stagnate.

This situation is especially critical because the National Aeronautics and Space Administration is looking to that industry to build its shuttle replacement. Unless other companies step forward and offer competitive services — and NASA is willing to hire them — the lack of flexibility, efficiency and innovation in the industry’s establishment base will make successful completion of the crew exploration vehicle difficult, if not impossible.

The non-competitive nature of the American aerospace industry was evident last fall when almost all of the major aerospace companies decided to team up to bid on the CEV rather than compete against each other.
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The New Colonial Movement

Last week’s successful launch by India of two satellites was clear evidence international competition to explore the empty reaches of space is beginning to heat up.

The swelling number of countries both willing and able to explore outer space also suggests the United States’ past domination is no guarantee of future mastery.

India – possibly the most underrated spacefaring nation of all – best epitomizes this new international space race.

Most of the recent publicity about India’s space effort has centered on its plan to launch an unmanned probe to the moon by 2007.
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The Engineering Crisis Redux

The turf war between engineers and scientists over government funding erupted again last week with the release of an interim National Research Council report criticizing NASA for canceling or delaying a number of space-based Earth science projects.

Worried the cuts might lead to a long-term downturn in U.S. research capabilities, the report — along with testimony by scientists at a congressional hearing the day the report was released — failed to address an already existing problem: For the last 20 years, the country’s engineering base has shown a disturbing and significant decline — a decline that shows no sign of abating.

One of the central arguments used repeatedly by scientists whenever there is a hint of research funding cuts at NASA, or anywhere else in the government, is that the cuts either will force people to leave the field or discourage students from entering it.
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