Ruppersberger: NASA, Companies Should Return To Moon

Relaunch the U.S. space program

We need an ambitious, long-range plan that envisions trips to the moon, Mars and beyond

By C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger

4:51 p.m. EST, January 4, 2011

In 1957, the United States was shocked into action after Russialaunched the first man-made satellite, Sputnik. America answered the challenge and landed a man on the moon 12 years later. A robust American industry was born. Exciting careers were created for the brightest American scientists. Unprecedented emphasis was put on science research and education. Just about every kid on Earth wanted to be Neil Armstrong.

Today, America is slipping. The president announced plans to cancel Constellation, the plan to return astronauts to the moon by 2020. This move jeopardizes an $11.5 billion investment, puts thousands of skilled scientists out of work, and shakes the very heart of the space industrial base.

Kids aren’t growing up wanting to be astronauts. China is pumping money into its space plan and setting its sights on a moon landing by 2020.

Satellites keep us safe. They globally track suspected terrorists, stop future attacks, and provide real-time data to our troops on the ground. At home, satellites allow us to operate GPS systems and cell phones.

Four years ago, I took over as chairman of the Technical and Tactical (T&T) Intelligence Subcommittee. We found undisciplined program management and skyrocketing costs, outdated export controls, no comprehensive space plan and inadequate spacecraft launch capability. We were giving Russia and China a head start. I feared that without swift action, the United States would never recover. We immediately started to work to maintain America’s dominance in space.

We passed several measures to ensure better oversight of satellite programs. In the fiscal 2010 Intelligence Authorization bill, we included a measure that forces programs to come in on time and on budget or face immediate cancellation unless critically important for national security. We encouraged agencies to only invest in space systems with proven technology to prevent costly delays when research and development is conducted on the spot. We also promoted greater collaboration between different agencies, sharing technology and saving money.

We relaxed the export regulations that stifled the American space industry and caused it to shrink to half of its size. The House passed language to ease burdensome restrictions when satellites and components are widely available and do not pose a national security risk. The bill stalled in the Senate, but the exposure got the attention of the Obama administration, which is reforming the regulations. This will allow U.S. space companies to sell globally and offer better products at lower prices here at home.

Less progress has been made creating a long-term plan for space. While other countries see costs drop, the U.S. is spending more per rocket launch and battling more delays than anywhere else. That is because the United States has committed to a two-company alliance to handle all launches, despite the fact that other U.S. companies are showing promise. Commercial capabilities must be considered in certain cases, including launching earth observation satellites, transmitting images, and traveling to the International Space Station.

Ironically, the United States will soon rely on Russia to provide transportation for our astronauts to the Space Station. When the last shuttle launch takes place this year, the United States will have to pay Russia to bring American scientists to the Space Station. This must change.

To give up our quest for the moon, Mars and beyond is not what is best for America’s space program. We need a new road map. We must commit to return to the moon through a program run by NASA in partnership with private companies that will invest in bigger, American-made engines to get us to the moon without relying on Russia. This plan must reinvigorate our space industrial base and inspire people, especially younger generations, to dream about our future in space.

As the new Congress convenes today, Republicans and Democrats can build on our progress and keep us reaching for the skies.

U.S. Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, a Democrat, has represented Maryland’s 2nd District since 2003. He can be reached at

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