Florida's Space Coast community is preparing for a visit by President Obama, who will discuss the future of NASA and the U.S. space program.
Last week, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden provided some detail about how the money will be spent, and a view ahead to a Mars mission. We are hoping the President will offer a plan to get us there.
At the Aerospace Industries Association, we work at the nexus of industry and government. We believe there is a way for the administration to act decisively on the future of space exploration.
To begin with, U.S. leadership in space plays a significant role in our national life. The world looks to America to provide that leadership. There is no doubt that other countries' space programs are eroding the U.S. lead in space. While international cooperation is fine, we've always had the lead. Have we truly considered the impact of relinquishing that responsibility?
Russia, China and India represent stages of advanced or developing space programs. Gen. Kevin Chilton, head of U.S. Strategic Command, describes space as a "contested domain," where once we regarded it as a sanctuary. It is in our national interest to stay in this domain and not yield primacy. A loss of leadership dims the bright bulb of opportunity for many engineers and scientists and aviators ' to say nothing of the students who are our future. Space leadership is a driver of innovation, a measure of world stature and a source of national pride.
Second, there is no substitute for human space exploration and it is critical for our national prosperity. We don't want to lose the human factor in space. When it comes to exploring, machines can do and see things we cannot, but the best scientific instrument is still a well-trained pair of eyes and hands.
Can you imagine a robot being programmed to say, "One small step...." as it places a titanium foot upon the surface of Mars? It will be a long time " if ever " before a robot could repair the Hubble telescope or make the many adjustments needed to add modules to the International Space Station.
We believe NASA's human exploration of space beyond low Earth orbit should be treated as a national priority and given the funding needed for timely development and implementation.
Finally, we must develop a national space strategy.
Shifting plans for U.S. human space exploration and the proposed termination of the Constellation program clearly call for a strategic plan taking us forward. Space planning takes years, and for us to be ready for what follows the retirement of the International Space Station around 2020, we need to consider a path to the next human steps in space and, eventually, to Mars.
Having a mighty goal or a series of goals embedded in the strategy will serve to organize NASA's work and congressional fiscal priorities, since there will always be defined programmatic objectives that need funding.
Planning this strategy should involve NASA, Defense, NOAA and the intelligence community. There should be input from the administration's National Security Council and the Office of Science and Technology Policy. This coordination is vital because decisions made by one agency can have a significant impact on investments by the aerospace industry, and may result in the loss of capabilities that other government agencies rely on. Recent decisions at NASA, for example, will result in loss and disruption of thousands of space jobs.
What might such a strategy look like? We believe it should set out long range goals for at least a generation so long term investments can be made. A strategy must address the industrial base, our current and future workforce and space's role as critical infrastructure. And of course, the strategy must be backed with appropriate financial resources.
Despite the financial troubles that lapped at his feet, President Kennedy stepped up to the challenge and urged us forward, with a goal and a vision and a plan. This is what we need ' a roadmap for the future and milestones along the way. And this is what we require ' leadership on an issue that has helped define our nation and proclaims in clear terms that this is who we are as Americans.
Marion C. Blakey is president and CEO of the Aerospace Industries Association. In 2007, she completed a five-year term as head of the Federal Aviation Administration.