The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) took a big step this week towards resumption of manned space flight. The Space Shuttle Discovery was moved from its hangar to an assembly building where the external fuel tank and rocket boosters will be attached. Its mission, designated STS-114, will be anything but a routine launch as NASA has completed over 300 modifications since the Shuttle Columbia accident in February 2003. NASA, whose economic impact is especially felt in Florida, is at a transformative crossroads where the results of today will vastly shape the country’s space program in the decades to come.
It is difficult to understate the impact that NASA has on the Florida economy. Warren McHone, professor of economics at the University of Central Florida, produced a report indicating that in 2003, over $3 billion of output, 14,000 government and contractor jobs and $66 million in state and local taxes can be attributed to NASA’s operations in Florida.
While these figures will most certainly change as NASA replaces the aging shuttle fleet with a new crew delivery vehicle, Kennedy Space Center Director James W. Kennedy has indicated that the workforce post-shuttle could include anywhere from 10,000-13,000 people. For that reason, it is not only the intangibles that space exploration invokes but also economic reality that success for NASA is success for Florida.
Independent of the horrific Columbia disaster in 2003, the space agency finds itself facing serious obstacles to deliver on President George W. Bush’s “Vision for Space Exploration.” The plan, one I remain skeptical of, sets a goal of a return to the moon by 2020 and an eventual trip to Mars.
Such lofty goals, while attainable, require a restructuring of NASA priorities and personnel. In early March, NASA Associate Administrator James L. Jennings indicated that the agency could lose over 2,680 jobs as it re-tools the organization to address future missions.
Making transformation of the personnel and structure of NASA particularly challenging is the lack of a director. In February 2005, Sean O’Keefe left the agency to take the chancellor position at Louisiana State University and while President Bush has nominated Michael Griffin to replace him, the Senate still must confirm the appointment.
Griffin, head of the space department at John Hopkins University, must convince Congress, the American people and NASA employees that the agency is indeed headed in the right direction by following President Bush’s space policy objectives.
It is when the space program is discussed in terms of budgetary requirements rather than lofty objectives that the feasibility and practicality of NASA objectives are questioned. The likely rub over the proposed $16.5 billion fiscal year 2006 NASA budget has already begun and will likely be centered on the cancellation of a service mission to the Hubble Space Telescope.
Despite the safety concerns within the agency over the recent years, the Hubble Space Telescope and the stunning success of the two Mars rovers have provided the “spatial capital” needed to energize the public and lawmakers for future missions. A recent editorial in The Los Angeles Times, written by several esteemed professors in favor of a shuttle servicing mission to Hubble, argued that “keeping science as part of its core mission will benefit NASA and the nation, as well as science.” This mutually beneficial relationship should remain an important part of any transformation of NASA.
Just as captivating, the Mars rovers Opportunity and Spirit, whose original mission was planned for only 90 days, celebrated their one year anniversaries in January. Managed by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), CNN reported in January that Opportunity’s studies have given conclusive proof that liquid water once existed on Mars. For everyday Americans, the Mars rovers provide captivating images from the red planet.
Despite the setbacks to manned space travel after the Columbia disaster and transformational changes for NASA, there certainly has been hope that greater success is possible for the space agency. Crucial to space travel success is empowering Americans to once again feel a shared sense of purpose in NASA objectives. Success in this goal will go far in propelling NASA into the future, while at the same time providing a positive stimulus to Florida’s economy.
Aaron Hill is a junior majoring in economics.