July 31, 2012
Credit: Credit: United Launch Alliance
ATLANTA — Space and air-breathing propulsion is at a “critical crossroads” in the face of shrinking budgets and fewer new program opportunities, NASA Acting Associate Administrator Robert Lightfoot says.
Speaking at the Joint Propulsion Conference here, Lightfoot says that to help counter these trends, the wider industry needs to be reminded about the criticality of propulsion technology as a whole.
“Here’s my challenge: make propulsion relevant again. I think propulsion is being taken for granted. A lot of people don’t realize how important it is in our daily lives. More than ever before, the propulsion is at a critical crossroads as we ask how we go forward.”
Lightfoot also urges the propulsion industry to “look beyond technology to more of a systems-level approach. Propulsion for aviation and space cuts across several sectors of our economy. During these tight fiscal times, the industry needs to ask what should government’s role be in enabling the next develop in propulsion?”
Lightfoot says the industry needs to be considering bigger-picture questions about trades in affordability. “Do we quit chasing the last second of ISP [specific impulse, a measure of rocket performance] for cost?” Other questions need asking about the levels of risk tolerance and securing the industrial base “two to three layers down.”
Beyond this, Lightfoot says, the U.S. propulsion business needs to address the growth of international partnerships, particularly in space.
“We’re not going to get there without international partnerships. We’re working with DOD on how we’re going to do that.”
Top challenges for NASA remain improving access to space at lower cost and enhanced reliability. “So where does that lead rocket propulsion?” Lightfoot asks. “It remains a critical national requirement, but the industry is shrinking and the fact there are no major new development programs makes it hard to stay relevant. But this is our chance to have a group that looks at propulsion issues across the nation.”
Lightfoot has championed the formation of the National Institute for Rocket Propulsion Systems, which brings together industry, government and academic bodies to help shape space policy, and will meet at the Joint Propulsion Conference.