Status Report

Speech by Boeing President and Chief Executive Jim Albaugh at the National Space Symposium

By SpaceRef Editor
April 10, 2008
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Speech by Boeing President and Chief Executive Jim Albaugh at the National Space Symposium

April 08, 2008

This is my fifth time speaking at the National Space Symposium and it as great an honor for me to be here. It’s somewhat of a homecoming for me in that it brings me back to the part of our business that I find most exciting. It’s also a special treat to be here on the fiftieth anniversary of man’s first steps into space.

About a month ago the Space Shuttle Endeavour lifted off on the 122nd Shuttle mission since the first launch in 1981. That’s 122 missions, and after 27 years the Shuttle still has the power to dazzle and – hopefully – capture the imagination of young people who might want to make aerospace their career and their life.

I continue to marvel at the Shuttle and the engineers who built it. As Mike Mott liked to say, it’s a launch vehicle… a reconfigurable science platform… a hypersonic reentry vehicle… and a glider. It’s reusable and it runs on the computing power of your watch!

It’s an incredible feat of engineering and to have contributed – in some small way – to the team that built and flew the Shuttle continues to be one of the things in my professional career that gives me great satisfaction.

More than 50 years ago I remember sitting in a second grade classroom in Washington state and listening to the distinctive pinging coming back from Sputnik. Little could I know – or even dream – that I would get a chance to one day be involved with a group of people like all of you here today who through vision… hard work… and dedication… would achieve so much of what would have been thought impossible just decades before.

America’s Position in a Global Space Industry

You probably expect me to walk you through 50 years of accomplishments in space. But rather than looking back a half-century, I’ll make it easy on you this morning. Let’s stick with a simple one-month look back. It’s actually quite revealing.

  • Shuttle Endeavour launched carrying a crew of seven astronauts that – in addition to six Americans – included a Japanese astronaut.
  • In the payload bay was a Japanese logistics module and a Canadian robot on the way to the International Space Station, where an American, a Russian and a European astronaut waited.
  • The European-built Jules Verne ATV was racing toward its rendezvous with the Station after being launched on an Ariane 5 from French Guiana.
  • Down on the equator a U.S., Russian, Ukrainian, Norwegian joint venture launched a U.S.-built satellite from Sea Launch.
  • Work continued on a private space venture to send space tourists on a sub-orbital ride… courtesy of a private company bankrolled by a British airline mogul.
  • Meanwhile, some 200,000 Chinese space workers labor diligently on a fledgling space program that has already had success in placing their own heroes into orbit with sights set on the moon.
  • And space engineers in India are busily preparing to launch a scientific payload on one of their boosters later this month.

As you can see just from this short snapshot in time, space is now truly international. All of this going on… while Congress debates a budget that will determine how long a gap we will have in our ability to get U.S. astronauts to Low-Earth Orbit.

With the great contributions our international partners are making, should we be worried about U.S. leadership in Space? Yes.

Why? Well… I do know enough about sports to say that second-place teams rarely inspire anyone. And unlike some “also-ran” sports teams we can’t afford the so-called “rebuilding” years of our space capability.

The next decade must be about re-affirming our leadership role in space.

Vision of 21st Century Aerospace

A moment ago I mentioned that this is my fifth time here. Each time I spoke to you against the backdrop of a very different space industry environment.

When I first spoke to you in 2000 we all were certain there was a bright, growing future in commercial space. It was the middle of the dot-com boom and we felt that space could power the “information age.”

But what a difference a year would make. I returned twelve months later, after the “dot-com” melt-down, to help preside over the wake of once promising commercial satellite ventures and the dream of 75 to a hundred launches a year. And if any of you think those days are returning… I have some sub-prime mortgages to sell you!

In that pre-9/11 world we tempered our enthusiasm and talked about how we might weather a downturn in the commercial launch and satellite industry and work together to “realize the promise of space.”

In 2002 we were six months into Operation Enduring Freedom and I spent much of my time discussing the significant contributions that space-based assets would make to the war on terror through connectivity and the integrated battlespace. Clearly, national security priorities had overtaken the commercial promise of space.

It would be two years before I would be back. In that post-Columbia world of 2004, I told the 20th Anniversary Hall of Fame Dinner attendees that we had it within us to realize the “Vision for Space Exploration,” and that – as an industry – we had to focus on mission assurance, performance, safety and cost.

Now… four years later… and fifty years into the history of spaceflight… where are we? What will that future look like? And will the U.S. continue to play a leadership role in space?

Leadership Though Innovation and a Risk Culture

We can be a leader. And we should.

But to do so will require fundamental changes in the way we position ourselves as an industry, and as partners with government. We must rethink how the space industry can best anticipate and meet the requirements of our military, civil and commercial customers.

Ours was an industry that was built on great ideas and new approaches. From the Wright Brothers… to the late Robert Jastrow… to Neil Armstrong’s walk on the moon… our industry was the most innovative on earth. Leaders like James McDonnell … Jack Northrop… Howard Hughes… Dutch Kindleberger – they literally changed the world.

The work these men did in evolving airplanes from fabric-covered biplanes… to metal-skinned long-range military aircraft… to jets and supersonic flight… laid the foundation of innovation… engineering… and manufacturing… that enabled us to go to and exploit space.

Over the past 50 years there have been amazing things accomplished. Mercury to Gemini… Apollo to the Shuttle and Station.

  • We linked the entire world through satellite communications so that the once-exotic concept of “live via satellite” became commonplace.
  • In support of our military and intelligence customers, technologies evolved that made our “vision” sharper… our “hearing” more acute… and our “voices” clearer and more effective. Global situational awareness, ubiquitous communications… all to help our men and women in the armed forces carry out vital missions around the globe.
  • And, we have greatly enhanced our ability to understand the planet we live on through earth observation satellites.

But despite all of this, what are the innovations that will allow us to take that next big leap forward? Why aren’t we investing in high-risk, high-payoff research and technology? And where are the innovators of our time? I fear they are not working in our industry. I fear they are working in businesses that reward them for their innovations and ideas… not just for their years of service.

Like it or not, the current space industry is largely a mix of thinly-capitalized new starts… struggling satellite manufacturers… and traditional aerospace companies that must rely on government to take the lead in funding research and technology.

Ours is an industry where the big companies have become more and more risk-averse… scrutinized by shareholders and market watchers who can be harsh judges… and where long-term visions succumb to short-term profits.

In government, lean budgets and other priorities understandably condition policymakers to shy away from funding high-risk research and development. And sadly, the business case for industry investing in high-risk technology without well-understood applications and returns has never closed. So how can we and government meet halfway?

Granted, there are entrepreneurs and others who are throwbacks to the old days of men willing to bet their companies on the bold initiative: Bert Rutan, the backers of the X-Prize, SpaceEx are some examples. Inspirational and exciting, yes, but hardly the stuff that rivets the world’s attention the way going to the moon once did.

Our industry must choose between being incrementalists, content to simply use the same old technologies to get into low-earth orbit, or becoming innovators, creating the next quantum leap that will mark the dawn of a whole new era in space.

And we must remember that the road back to the moon and beyond is NOT paved with well-intentioned but abandoned initiatives like National Aerospace Plane… X-33… Space Launch Initiative… and Next-generation Launch Technology.

The road back to the moon will be paved with commitment, leadership and innovation… and a government willing to step up and fund space innovation at levels we have not seen in decades.

Commitment to Innovation

Innovations in aerospace defined the 20th Century by changing our society…

  • Forever changing the way we protect freedom and democracy…
  • Forever changing the way we communicate…
  • Forever changing the way people can travel and experience the world…
  • Forever changing the way we look at our universe.

Aerospace can define the 21st Century, if we transform the industry to inspire innovation. This transformation of our industry will be impossible without robust investment in research and technology.

At its peak during the Apollo program, NASA’s allocation was some four percent of the federal budget. Today, it is a fraction of that. Back in those days. when engineers worked to bring back the crippled Apollo 13, Gene Kranz declared: “Failure is not an option.” With today’s budget realities, that kind of funding is not an option.

So how do we achieve the high-risk breakthrough innovations of the future? We must begin with identifying the enabling technologies that will – with commitment and an openness to big ideas – let us take the next big steps.

In my view, propulsion is the great enabler. We must reduce the cost and increase the efficiency of space propulsion. Our propulsion technology has not progressed much since Robert Goddard was launching rockets in New Mexico in the 1930s. Since the development of the SSME in the 1970’s, there has been only one large liquid propulsion engine developed in this country… the RS-68.

Where are the new technologies. Who is investing. And at what level?

In developing the next-generation of satellites, what will we do to provide orders of magnitude improvements in efficiency and weight reductions?

Identifying and focusing on these enabling technologies – and others – will depend on an enduring partnership between industry and government.

NASA: Innovation in a Challenging Budget Environment

And speaking of the nexus of government and industry, and of civil and commercial space, it is appropriate that I take a moment to pay tribute to a man and a place where this is happening more and more And where the challenges of tight budgets require innovative thinking to keep the big programs moving forward.

Mike Griffin and his NASA team have been doing an outstanding job making room for both Big Aerospace and commercial entrepreneurs in future space endeavors. I applaud what he said back in January as he discussed the Constellation project and returning to the moon.

He said…”The development and exploitation of space has, so far, been accomplished in a fashion that can be described as ‘all government, all the time.'” He went on to say… “That’s not the way the American frontier was developed… it’s not the way this country developed aviation… it’s not the way the rest of our economy works… and it ought not to be good enough for space, either.”

“Not good enough for space.” I like that.

When it comes to innovation we need to be thinking about what is good enough for space and forge the partnerships, set the goals, and make the investment needed to get there. And part of that investment will be to ensure we have the right workforce for the future. And here lies another of our great challenges.

A High-Skilled 21st Century Workforce

Looking ahead, we face a triple threat. The first and most imminent threat is the aging of our industry workforce. The average age of an aerospace engineer today is 54 years old.

And that leads directly into the second threat: We are simply not producing enough of the scientists and engineers of the future. Where are the Robert Goddard’s of tomorrow? My guess is they may be studying in Bangalore or Shanghai.

There was a time when aerospace was the place to be. It was majestic. Today, in the U.S. only two percent of engineering students enter aerospace. In one survey, 80 percent of American aerospace workers said they would not recommend their profession to their own children – 80 percent! That’s an indictment of us.

In short, I fear that in coming decades we will have too few workers… with too few skills… with too little interest in what we do. How can we prevent this intellectual disarmament? How can we attract the best and brightest?

As an industry, we can start by becoming more attractive to younger workers by inspiring them to believe in the importance of what we do. And once we’ve found them we need to retain them by keeping them excited for the long trek that space requires.

We lose too many good employees to other industries after the first three or four years. Part of it is because in our industry it takes too long for young engineers to reach a level of real responsibility. To be promoted, one has to have gray hair.

As executives and managers, we have to ask:

  • Are we developing the innovators and leaders of the future?
  • Do we promote based on merit?
  • Do we give responsibility based on competency?
  • Do we reward based on performance?

Only by doing so can we keep the best and brightest.

Leadership Through Education

Lastly, I come to the final and long-term threat: the education of our children. The United States is suffering from what I would call a “Lost Generation.”

Think about it: the last Apollo moon mission was in 1972 and the first Shuttle launch was in 1981. In the intervening years an entire generation has been born, grown up, gone to college and launched careers.

Certainly, the Shuttle and Station are remarkable achievements. And the robotic missions to Mars and beyond our solar system have dazzled members of this generation. But they have never had the experience of Sputnik or Mercury or Gemini or Apollo to inspire dreams of space. And they take for granted the gifts of telecommunications satellites… the valuable understanding that comes from scientific payloads… and the security that comes from military satellites.

If they were inspired to go into engineering or science at all – and the numbers here are discouraging – they went into other businesses. An entire generation… “lost.”

The current and future generations deserve schools and curricula designed for the Information Age, not the Industrial Age. This new commitment to education must be serious and it must be sustained. We cannot wait around for another Sputnik to galvanize government into action.

Ultimately, perhaps the best way to attract future generations to space is to dare our children to dream again – with great goals that challenge us to explore new frontiers. Here again, I commend Mike Griffin and NASA for all they do to keep the dream alive through educational programs, websites and other outreach.

It’s nice to know that in a world of video games and high-tech, razzle-dazzle C-G-I movies… meeting an astronaut can still excite young people and maybe inspire them to go into space for real.

Let us hope that the real images we receive from intrepid rovers or robotic spacecraft, or the mission to return astronauts to the moon, Mars and beyond, will capture the imagination of a girl or boy today and inspire them to become tomorrow’s scientists and engineers.

The U.S. in Space: Behind the Wheel or in the Backseat?

In space – especially in the last two decades – our international partners have done remarkable things.

And as so often happens in the business world: yesterday’s partners become today’s competitors. And also like the business world you have to be worried about the threat of that new guy who just opened up a shop down the street. Here, of course, I’m talking about China and India.

For fifty years we have led the way. Sputnik caught us by surprise, yet we responded, and look at all that we accomplished.

Today we have ample warning. We can clearly see our international competitors fast approaching in the rear view mirror… and objects are larger than they seem!

This is not the time to take a back seat. If we do, the consequences will be non-recoverable and future generations will judge us harshly.

We are embarking on what I would call the most crucial decade for our space program since that first decade fifty years ago. What’s at stake is nothing less than our place on the world stage. It’s about our nation’s ability to lead and not to follow.

We must maintain our technology leadership position in space… as we send men and women back to the moon and beyond… as we further connect our world and understand it better… and as we protect our country by enhancing our space-based ability to watch and warn, protect and respond.

In space exploration we must not allow the space gap after retirement of the Shuttle to grow longer than current projections.

In military space we must not lose our edge in protecting space-based assets or responding to threats from space. In commercial space we must always offer the world technology that keeps our commercial satellite companies robust and competitive.

Going back to space exploration, we must stay the course with our current Space Policy. That support needs to be continued through long-term commitment by elected officials, industry and the public.

Let’s remember that Space is not a political issue. It never has been. Regardless of who you support politically we need to show our support for the current policy.

We have a good architecture to replace Shuttle and return to the moon. We must all remain solidly behind it. And we must be committed to it long-term. Changing it incrementally or as a whole is the worst thing we could do.

Put simply… To retain our leadership we must:

  • Keep our space programs healthy, relevant and politically viable.
  • Make innovation a national priority and ensure meaningful levels of federal funding.
  • Develop a highly-skilled space workforce.
  • And promote an educated generation that embraces math, science and the promise of space.

Space is a Great Enabler. It’s strategic for our country and for all mankind. And the U.S. must be a leader.


The space community recently lost two of its stars.

Arthur C. Clarke was a true space visionary. Although people probably remember him most for “2001: A Space Odyssey,” Arthur C. Clarke was so much more. In addition to being a science fiction writer he was a man of science and engineering and an uncanny futurist.

Indeed, he first envisioned the idea of satellites covering the world in geosynchronous orbit in 1945! Now, we take that for granted.

Not long before his death he said he wanted “to be remembered most as a writer – one who entertained readers, and, hopefully, stretched their imagination as well.”

One of those people who might have had their imagination stretched by Mr. Clarke was astronaut David Low. Sadly, we also lost him recently. But he too left behind a great legacy – not too unlike that of his father – NASA’s George M. Low.

David Low declared he would be an astronaut when he was nine years old, probably about the time of the Gemini missions. And he went on to become an accomplished astronaut, payload commander, spacewalker, and aerospace executive.

Fellow astronaut Frank Culbertson said after Low’s death that “He was more academic than the rest of us, but he also became a very good operator. He was good with his hands, a good mechanic who worked on cars, but he understood the physics behind everything. (And) he was also a good communicator.”

It seems to me that that is exactly what we will need if we are to realize our ambitions in space and retain our leadership:

  • Men and women who are inspired to turn to space….
  • Who know how things work and what is possible…
  • And who can communicate the “why” in space as well as the “how” and the “when.”

All of us – in industry, government, academia and the general public – must be all of those things as well… as we work together to live up to the legacy of the first 50 years in space… and help realize the promise of the next 50 years.

SpaceRef staff editor.