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Interest in space wanes despite America's space dependency

by Carl Bergquist
Air University Public Affairs

10/10/2007 - MAXWELL AIR FORCE BASE, Ala. (AFPN) -- Too many Americans feel the "dark void" above them is of little consequence, but nothing is further from the truth warned one congressman during the Space Education Symposium held by Air University's National Space Studies Center in Montgomery, Ala., in September. 

In a video presentation at the symposium, Rep. Terry Everett (R-Ala.), a senior member of the House Armed Services, Intelligence and Agriculture Committee, said space is mostly an unsecured resource, and few Americans understand their dependency on it.

The three-day symposium brought together experts and scholars from universities, military services and legislatures to discuss concerns about the issue.

One of the first steps in making citizens more aware of the importance of space is to "bring people like yourselves together" so they can learn and take the knowledge back to their communities to broaden the recognition of space dependency, Representative Everett said.

Many modern conveniences depend on space assets, said Col. Sean McClung, director of the National Space Studies Center. The dependency on space goes beyond the military, government agencies and the intelligence community to the use of space assets for weather reporting, global mapping, ATM machines, agricultural reports, global positioning systems, the trucking industry, communications, airlines, the scientific community and many other areas.

Speakers at the symposium shared an almost unanimous perception that the public and many service members lack an understanding of the world's dependency on space. This concerns experts during a time when other nations are expanding space technology and exploration programs, which in some cases challenge American strategic interests. One example is the news earlier this year that China successfully targeted and destroyed its own weather satellite using a medium-range ballistic missile.

"Few people could have imagined in past years where we would be in space today, but unfortunately the interest in space has waned," said Maj. Gen. Stephen J. Miller, the commandant of the Air War College. He said the United States' space capabilities are an "under-appreciated resource" but are "intertwined" with every military operation that occurs today. Unfortunately, only 11,000 of more than 2.5 million U.S. military members are involved in the space business.

When General Miller came out of the Air Force Academy, he didn't intend to have a career in space. He intended to be an F-15 pilot, said Ambassador Roger Harrison of the Center for Space and Defense Studies at the Air Force Academy. That is true of many Air Force officers.

"That is our (space professional's) fault because we haven't told our story very well and haven't recruited new members to the space field," the ambassador said.

He said he felt the Air Force Academy was the place to start, and the space business needs to recruit the, "best 10 percent of the best 10 percent" for the field.

Considering that Headquarters Air Force Space Command is only 20 miles from the Air Force Academy, that might seem like an easy task. However, Col. John Hyten said when it comes to space, the two are worlds apart. Colonel Hyten is the director of plans and requirements for the Space Command, which is located at Peterson Air Force Base, Colo.

"The young cadets love what we are doing in space, but few are coming into the space business," he said.

That might be because they simply aren't attracted to the business, so everyone involved in space education needs to focus more on getting students interested in space, said Dr. Marty Kress, the executive director of the National Space Science and Technology Center, at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala.

"I recently asked a high school class how many wanted to work for the National Aeronautic and Space Administration, and no one raised their hand," Dr. Kress said.

Students see a job at NASA as sitting in an office and making drawings for the next 10 years, and they don't want that, he explained. But educating students and getting them interested in space can be as simple as visiting schools or bringing them to space research facilitie.

"Space training has got to be 'hands on.' That's the way students learn," Dr. Kress said. "But they have to be able to see research in action."

Access to space is "the first piece of the puzzle," Colonel Hyten said, and that involves a complicated partnership between the military, government agencies and civilian interests.

"Most of the work for space is done by contractors, and that's not so bad when you are talking about $100 million launches," the colonel said. "But, a problem is that our national pool of space-smart scientists is shrinking, and the industry is having a hard time delivering on demand."

Addressing the education universities are providing on shared dependency of space, Dr. Bradley Liebst, head of the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics at the Air Force Institute of Technology, said the Air Force looks at lists of university space-related courses, decides which courses AFIT wants to focus on, and lets the universities handle training for the remaining courses.

Keeping track of what universities are doing with space study, Dr. Frank Curran, the director of the Universities Space Research Association's Huntsville operation in Huntsville, Ala., said he has polled many colleagues and doesn't believe anyone is teaching shared space dependency.

"That might be bad, but I look at it as an opportunity," Dr. Curran said. "As satellites and other systems become more sophisticated, there is a bigger pay off in teaching those subjects."

There is "plenty of money out there," but researchers need to spend it efficiently, he said, while talking about a billion-dollar hardware program that was not well-planned and ultimately did not work.

"That was a billion dollars spent for nothing, and the space industry can't afford that," Dr. Curran said.

Though the Air Force has been in the space business almost all of its 60 year history, it and the other military branches must understand the role of space education in terms of national defense, said Lt. Gen. Stephen Lorenz, the Air University commander.

Explaining that the Navy is working on space research, retired Navy Adm. Daniel Oliver said the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif., offers two space system degrees. Receiving either degree makes the recipient a member of the Naval Space Cadre that works on space-related projects. However, the president of the school said he does not know how they are going to "galvanize the public into making space a priority."

"Unfortunately, space has become so imbedded and fundamental in our lives that we take it for granted," he said.

Retired Marine Corps Maj. Gen. Donald Gardner, president of the Marine Corps University at Quantico, Va., said Marines use historical perspectives to teach and force their students to think creatively.

"If I can teach you to think creatively, whatever problems you encounter can be solved," he said. "The Chinese say that we are all brothers connected by four seas, but that will become brothers connected by space, and that needs to be space controlled by the U.S. Air Force."

He said the Marine Corps prides itself as being, "Spartans of the nation," but it tends to get lazy about space education, letting the other services provide that capability for them.

Outside of the military, the country's "eyes and ears" have been in space for 45 years. And when it comes to space, American citizens expect the professionals to be there, said Brig. Gen. Edward L. "Ed" Bolton Jr., the deputy director for Systems, Integration and Engineering at the National Reconnaissance Office in Chantilly, Va.

"I think an important aspect of better space education is to learn how to use the data we are already getting in better ways," the general said. "Because of fundamental laws of physics, significant change in the way we launch satellites is not likely, but we can use the data to produce better and cheaper products for space."

The country needs to encourage more participation in the space business and find ways to get people involved, he said.

"We are dangerously close to being dependent on the Russians to put people in space, and I never thought I would live long enough to say that," General Bolton said.

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