Where is the U.S. Space Program Going — and Why?

A pair of editorials in Florida newspapers have raised concerns about what editors view as a dangerous drift in space policy at both the state and national levels.

The St. Petersburg Times notes that although the Obama Administration has provided NASA with billions of additional funding and reaffirmed his predecessor’s plans to return to the moon, it has not provided a clear reason why:

But the Obama administration has come no closer to explaining a rationale for the moon mission than the Bush administration did. It also has not laid out how the United States would keep the manned space program alive in the five years between when it retires the space shuttle in 2010 and starts flying the next-generation Constellation craft in 2015.

Policymakers have spent too much time debating whether to fly the shuttle another year and too little time focusing on keeping NASA’s mission relevant and its skilled work force intact. Even if Obama convinces himself and the American people that a moon-to-Mars mission has value, the nation would be hard-pressed to pay for it. Retiring the shuttle will also trigger a brain drain at Florida’s Cape Canaveral, among other places, and make the United States more reliant on its onetime space rival, Russia, and private sector contractors. Aerospace leaders are warning state lawmakers that at least 3,500 jobs — many of them highly skilled and paid — could be lost at the Kennedy Space Center this year as the shuttle program closes.

It’s that loss of jobs that is concerning the editors over at the Orlando Sentinel. Not only will the shuttle shutdown put thousands out of work, but the Missile Defense Agency is looking to lure top engineers to their new headquarters in Huntsville, Ala. Meanwhile, Space Florida – the state agency chartered to promote aerospace – has been criticized as wasteful and inefficient.

As we’ve argued before, legislators need to complete a thorough but expeditious review of Space Florida. They need to do whatever it takes to make the agency more efficient and effective. The time for patience has passed.

Legislators also need to seriously consider other ways to help Florida attract space investment to make up for the loss of the shuttle program, and to develop research and engineering jobs in other high-wage industries. Members from both parties, in both chambers, have proposed a series of programs and financial incentives to accomplish these goals. Most of them are relatively modest in cost.

Of course, any new spending is a tough sell after repeated rounds of cuts in the state budget. But Florida needs to keep up with the competition for space jobs and other high-wage work. Saving a little now could cost a lot more in the future.

Clarity at all levels is needed. The Florida Space Coast constitutes a world-class collection of facilities and talent. It would be sad to see that devastated in the years ahead by weak planning and poor performance. Action is needed now.