For more than a half-century, the United States led the space race. First to put a human on the moon. First to launch certain satellites. First to orbit another planet.
But this country's leadership position might be faltering. In 1966, NASA's budget peaked at 4 to 5 percent of the total federal budget; by comparison, NASA's current budget is .48 of a percent. The administration retired its shuttle program last year, and economic concerns are creating competition for tax dollars to fund space development and exploration.
U.S. government spending on space projects last year was flat at $47.25 billion, while governments in Brazil, India and Russia increased their budgets by more than 20 percent; even the European Space Agency boosted its space budget by 7 percent amid economic turmoil. Russia launched 31 satellites and vessels into orbit, and China had 19, ahead of the U.S.' 18 launches for the first time in history, according to The Space Report 2012.
The report was authored by the Colorado Springs-based Space Foundation, which opens its 28th annual National Space Symposium at The Broadmoor on Monday, April 16. But Space Foundation CEO Elliot Pulham isn't discouraged. He says downsizing has just motivated companies and countries to find international partners.
"The ratio of commercial to government [spending] has been greater each year for the last decade," he says in an interview at the foundation's new Arrowswest Drive facility.
Why you should care
Space means big bucks, and Colorado is near the top of the heap.
The Colorado Space Coalition, comprised of business booster organizations, reports the state has the nation's second-largest space economy, with more than 163,000 space-related jobs and $9.7 billion in annual payroll. The main focus is on launch vehicle, spacecraft and sensor manufacturing, ground control, navigation and remote sensing.
A chief anchor for all that is Peterson Air Force Base, home to agencies including Army Space Command and Air Force Space Command.
Pulham says the space business might not get a lot of press because most assets are "hidden behind the wire at Schriever and Peterson" Air Force bases. NASA projects get more attention, such as the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle being developed by Lockheed Martin in Littleton, a program estimated at $5 billion. NASA recently committed another $375 million for Lockheed to purchase a rocket for Orion's test flight, slated for 2014, the Denver Post reported in January.
Sierra Nevada Corp. is building the Dream Chaser, a winged and piloted orbital commercial spacecraft, at the University of Colorado Boulder — one of several entrepreneurial space vehicles being developed in the U.S.
If none of that impresses you, consider that the Space Foundation itself has become an economic driver for Colorado Springs, its symposium alone generating $25 million in economic impact. This year, some 9,000 attendees have booked 10 local hotels solid for the week; as the mega-players have scaled back, Pulham says, the event has attracted 42 new smaller companies.
"The Space Symposium is the largest event we have in Colorado Springs every year," says Doug Quimby with the Greater Colorado Springs Chamber of Commerce and EDC. "The [economic] impact is huge. And it brings a lot of attention on our aerospace defense business."
Why big business cares
This year's symposium can't help but dedicate a lot of time to satellites. It's one of the biggest growth sectors in space, as companies seek to build and launch the tools necessary to support growing demand for GPS, TV and radio, iPhones and the like, Pulham says. Already, 994 working satellites are orbiting the Earth.
"In terms of crass capitalism, you're seeing commercial companies positioning themselves to do the work that government has traditionally done in low Earth orbit," he adds, referring to the space 100 to 1,240 miles above Earth's surface.
One session called "Launch Providers, Propulsion Partners and the Way to Space" features eight panelists, all from private companies, including two French firms, a U.S.-Russian joint venture, and SpaceX, a 10-year-old U.S. company recognized by the Space Foundation last year with a Space Achievement Award for becoming the first private company to launch, orbit and recover a spacecraft.
Pulham says the big challenge isn't building and launching satellites, but rather how to cut the $200 million to $500 million cost. One way would be to figure out how to refuel or repair satellites, instead of abandoning them when they die.
"Wouldn't it be great to top it off while in orbit?" he says.
Although SpaceX plans a NASA robotic mission to Mars in 2018, it's rare for the private sector to reach into interplanetary space on its own. That, Pulham says, requires vision spanning 50 to 100 years, and remains the government's domain. Among its many probe projects, NASA plans an Aug. 6 landing on Mars of science laboratory rover Curiosity, the largest vehicle to alight on the red planet.
Of course, most of us will continue to be more affected by the practical applications of space-related research. The foundation's Janet Stevens notes that the space program has yielded technologies used medically in everything from three-dimensional tissue cultivation to breast cancer detection.
Perhaps space exploration one day will pay off by giving humans an escape hatch, should an asteroid threaten to wipe out life, Pulham says. Regardless, he's convinced nothing can stop humankind's pursuit of the unknown.
"At the end of the day, I'm confident humans are explorers," he says. "It's just a question of who's going to do the exploring, and when."