The Next 50 Years of U.S. Space Leadership

Remarks as Delivered By Robert J. Stevens
Chairman, President & Chief Executive Officer,
Lockheed Martin Corporation
23rd National Space Symposium
Colorado Springs, Colorado - 04/10/2007

I want to thank the organizers of the 23rd National Space Symposium for inviting me to be here today.  Each year, this forum is the place for space… and this expert audience is the face of space... and today, to borrow the title of a Space Foundation report, I would like to make a modest case for space as we think about the next half century of discovery. 

This audience knows well that 50 years ago this February, General Bernard Schriever gave an address arguing for American “space superiority.”  What may be less well known is that his boss, Defense Secretary Charles Wilson, thought his remarks were so unnecessarily provocative that he ordered Schriever never again use the word “space” in any speech – a direction that proved useful until that October, when a single spacecraft lit up our evening sky.  Sputnik led us into the “space race” – a challenge that would redefine our national security, our national economy, and our role in the world.

So many have written about these challenges with such authority that I can add very little.  We entered this contest for geo-strategic and military security reasons, to be sure.  Even our civil space program was driven largely by Cold War rivalry.  But as we embarked on what President Kennedy called “one of the great adventures of all time,” we found ourselves ennobled and changed in ways we had never imagined.  NASA’s chief historian has appropriately compared the Space Age to the 15th and 16th century “Age of Discovery.”  The ‘50s and ‘60s were in fact an age of great exploration and inspiration – not simply in pushing the frontiers of space, but of who we were as a nation and what we believed as a people. 

From the first Mercury launch to a dozen landings on the Moon, Americans were joined in a mission of faith and vision to tame the unknown.  The images may have been grainy ... that first dusty footprint ... our flag against the Moon’s forbidding terrain ... the incredible image of planet Earth rising over the lunar horizon but that was reality TV before we had reality TV.  It was riveting, and it transformed us and our perspective of how much we could do, how far we could go, and how high the stakes were.

Since winning the space race, America has been the world’s military, civil, and commercial space leader – a distinction largely earned by you, the people you represent, and the giants who came before.  And as we look back on the last 50 years of our programs and activities, it’s quite amazing to see the degree to which space capabilities have expanded and evolved, and touched nearly everything and everyone.

At Lockheed Martin, we quite naturally see space systems protecting and empowering the brave men and women we’re proud to serve.  I think of the extraordinary photos of U.S. Special Forces in Afghanistan, mounted on horseback, summoning GPS-guided precision air strikes by satellite phone.  I think of the way our troops have skillfully maneuvered through blinding sandstorms, aided by advanced weather and imaging satellites that see what they and our adversaries cannot.  I think of a sailor on the USS Eisenhower, serving in the Gulf, admiring -- via email -- photos of his newborn child. 

I know that space technologies make a difference every day.

And not just in defense.  Space systems now support almost all our modern conveniences – everything from cable TV to cell phones to ATMs and, as such, underpin the strength of our economy.  Even as tools like GPS have military applications, they also allow farmers to do precision seeding of their crops… rescue teams to locate miners trapped underground… and families driving in their cars to get help when an emergency strikes.  Search and rescue sensors on NOAA’s environmental satellites have helped save thousands of lives.  And few Americans appreciate just how many inventions grew out of space technology – from kidney dialysis machines… to smoke detectors… cordless tools… and even the Statue of Liberty’s protective coating.

Finally, and to me, maybe most importantly, American leadership in space has long symbolized our leadership on Earth.  I believe this is so because there is a simple, basic, common experience among all people, of almost all ages – to look into the night’s sky and wonder what’s beyond.  As successful cosmic voyagers, Americans accomplished feats that others only dreamed of, earning global recognition and prestige that served us across all our global pursuits. 

Over the years we may have grown somewhat accustomed to U.S. predominance in space… but that role has never really been guaranteed.  And today, we see increasing challenges to our previously unchallenged leadership.

When the United States broke into space, the technological requirements were huge barriers to entry.  But over time, those barriers have shrunk, and many of the once-exotic technologies we pioneered have been brought down to Earth. 

It used to be that only the two superpowers had spacelaunch capabilities.  Now, we see commercial launch services in India, Israel, Ukraine, Kazakstan, and more.  It used to be that satellite imagery was the exclusive and costly province of governments.  Now with applications like GoogleEarth, it’s a finger-click away… for free. 

More and more countries around the world now aspire to join the space club.  They’ve seen the advantages it’s brought America, and they seek the same benefit.

In many respects, we should welcome the inevitable spread of commercial technology.  It expands global markets, encourages innovation, and stimulates the development of strong international partnerships, like the 350 our company enjoys today.

Americans have always had the right stuff when it comes to the global marketplace – either as partners or competitors, and the future looks to be no different.

But when it comes to national security space, our nation must hold the high ground – preserving unquestioned superiority, and protecting our range of space assets.  The stakes remain great, perhaps greater than they have ever been, and the world is still an unpredictable place – whether we’re talking about efforts to jam or disable or interrupt our current systems ... or get new missiles into space ... or kill a satellite.

I loved the story told by General Lance Lord about a young Marine he met shortly after the initial combat phase in Iraq.  The General asked him, “What’d you think about all those satellites in space?”  And the Marine replied, “Well, I don’t need any satellites in space, I’ve got this little box that tells me where I’m going and where I need to be with this navigational information.” i

To me, that’s the essence of what we’ve all worked for – to make space systems so simple and so effective you can forget they’re even there. 

But we in this room all recognize the time it has taken to field these systems, the scale of investment we’ve made, and the criticality of their operation.  Space is the backbone of our national security.  It must not become our Achilles heel. 

We need to maintain unrivalled missile warning systems that instantly provide alert and enable our missile defense systems to take appropriate action.

We need to advance unparalleled space reconnaissance capabilities that put critical, near real-time intelligence in the hands of our policymakers, intelligence analysts, military leaders, and allies.

And we need to preserve and enhance our secure and jam-proof military communications – from Milstar to the next generation of extremely high frequency systems – that permit a Trident captain to communicate covertly without compromising his location... and ensure our government can maintain communications in a crisis.

Put simply:  There is no substitute or alternative to military dominance in space… and this conviction should guide our course for the next 50 years.   

I would argue that our civil space mission, too, is key to America’s strength.  It represents the better angels of our nature -- our yearning for knowledge and truth.  Some have suggested that Americans no longer get excited about space exploration.  Yet, I wonder how our citizens will feel if we let our top spacefaring status drift… and find ourselves watching other nations’ dazzling achievements instead of our own. 

NASA Administrator Michael Griffin warned last month that if the next generation of human spacecraft is further delayed, and the four-year lag between the Space Shuttle and Orion grows, “we will be seen by many as ceding our national leadership in human spaceflight at a time when Russia and China have such capabilities and India is developing them.”  As a businessman, I can’t imagine investing to develop a significant, sustainable, defining core competency and differentiating strategic advantage only to abandon the position.

As a minimum, this could lead to a situation where other countries with space aspirations start looking for new partners.

I, for one, am not ready to pass the torch, and I respectfully suggest tha we all rethink the wisdom of allowing a 4-year gap in human access to space.  I think America should be rekindling the flame and lighting the way.

And while there are complex challenges, defying easy answers, we should incorporate four basic principles in our approach as we, together, look forward.

First is accepting that we cannot preserve space leadership without sustained investment.  Funding stability is key and we should all work to deliver the kind of performance that reinforces this stability.  For customers this means focusing early on system definition and requirements discipline – because stable requirements lead to a more executable program.  For industry this means assembling core competencies, processes, and leadership in the supply chain to better discharge the program plan and meet commitments. 

Programs that are meeting commitments with stable and managed requirements prove to be the best candidates for sustained funding support, and we together hold many of the keys to this virtuous cycle.  I also believe that, as crucial as it is in a constrained budget environment to make the most of the resources we have, there is ultimately a point when doing more simply demands more. 

I’m mindful that this argument may seem disingenuous or self-serving.  Lockheed Martin is obviously privileged to be a major contractor.  I’m not talking about ladeling on money without accountability or largess in an environment that does not warrant additional investment.  Investment opportunities must be earned.

I assure you  – we get this.  Our company, our partners, our competitors.  And we are all committed to redoubling our efforts to provide realistic estimates and hard-nosed execution.  We want to be partners in this process you can count on. 

But the funding issue goes way beyond any company or industry aspirations.  It’s at the core of our nation’s ability to do what needs to be done.

Let me pick on NASA for a moment.  The Vision for Space Exploration, which has set us on a course to go back to the Moon with an option to move on to Mars, has been masterfully advanced.  But within the top line budget tough trade-offs have been made.  And in Senator Barbara Mikulski’s words, NASA’s budget leaves “no margin for errors.”

Yet, at $17.3 billion, NASA’s proposed budget for 2008 is significantly less than annual sales of candy and gum.  It’s less than half what Americans spend on their pets.  In fact, this year, Americans spent about $17 billion just to celebrate Valentines Day.  You could double NASA’s budget and it would still only cost each American about 32 cents a day.  Thirty-two cents a day to reintroduce humanity to a galaxy of wonder.  Thirty-two cents a day. ii

Second, we need to follow the recipe.  I didn’t grow up in the space business, and by the standards in this room, I’m a newcomer.  As I have learned the business, I’ve been confronted with the observation that, “Space is broken.”  Let me share with you a view through “new guy” eyes.  More than being broken – space is different.  The environment is more severe and unforgiving than most, requiring a different formulation of programmatic elements.  I’ll bet most everyone here knows these elements from your personal experience.  When we address these elements and follow the formula – the “recipe” for space – when we have sufficient test equipment to stress the entire system during development, when we provision adequate spares and qualification units, when we assure adequate schedule margin, and when we budget for management reserve – space becomes much less broken.  In space, there are no shortcuts, no quick fixes.  When we follow the recipe, we succeed.

Third, we need a sustained commitment to inspire and recruit our brightest minds.   The space race inspired my generation to pursue careers in science and engineering.  Yet, today, U.S. colleges and universities are only producing about 78,000 engineering undergraduates a year – and that figure hasn’t grown in a decade. 

This has created a serious challenge for companies like Lockheed Martin, where one in three of our current employees is over the age of 50 – and 47% of our workforce has earned the professional distinction of scientist or engineer.  Even as the U.S. aerospace sector struggles to replenish our workforce, there is no doubt that China is racing ahead to build the technical wave of the future, with 50 percent of Chinese undergraduates getting degrees in natural science or engineering. 

Of equal concern, this is taking place at a time of intense competition for skilled technical employees.  Today, the most innovative, ambitious young minds are being recruited by firms like Google – a firm that didn’t exist a decade ago, which FORTUNE magazine lists as the  Best Company to Work For in America.

All of us in the aerospace industry are incredibly – and rightfully – proud of what we do.  But aerospace technology, as perceived by young people today, lacks the aura of dynamic creativity they associate with IT.  We in aerospace may have earned our bona fides as rocket scientists – but at Google, young people expect to have a blast.

The point is not that our industry is due for an extreme makeover.  We are working on some of the world’s most important and spectacular technologies.  And we’re the best in the world at what we do.  But we do need to accept that today’s young engineers have choices.  And if the aerospace sector wants to remain attractive to our nation’s best and brightest, we need to rekindle the energy and excitement that surrounded the new frontier.

So let me ask each of you, as leaders, to find something good to say each day about what we do – the achievements, the successes, the value – and to celebrate these things.  I know the work is complex, time is our enemy, and as executives, we are compelled to spend a disproportionate amount of time on the things that didn’t go as planned as compared to the majority of things that did.  But if you were a young person, an emerging talent, and all you knew about the aerospace sector were the disappointments and setbacks and failures, why would you ever want to join this community… invest your time… devote your life?

I know that we can find a better way.

And that brings me to my last key point.  We need to renew our tolerance for, and understanding of, risk… and remind others that, as we pursue the unknown, the inevitable missteps along the way are part of the process of discovery.  It is how we learn and adapt. 

Let me be clear:  I’m not advocating reckless endeavors, foolish pursuits, or the abandonment of good process and sound practice.  The effective management of modern space programs requires great care.  But all tests that don’t confirm the hypothesis are not necessarily failures.  Some results that were not in keeping with expectations have proven extremely valuable and worthy of our effort.  And, most importantly, setbacks are not the product of poor character or lack of integrity by those involved in the process.  To characterize it as such would be a huge disservice to so many who work with complete dedication each day.

Think back to 1958, when President Eisenhower approved a top secret program to surveil the Soviet Union from space.  Lockheed partnered with the government to create the CORONA satellite system.  It took thirteen tries before the CORONA team successfully recovered the film capsule from space.  Put another way, CORONA failed 12 times.

But we didn’t give up.  Our customer didn’t lose faith.  Congress provided the money.  And that perseverance paid off many times over – as America peered over the Iron Curtain ... verified what we did not trust ... and strengthened our security. 

I wonder if CORONA would have made it in today’s environment.  I have my doubts.  Let’s do our best to realistically describe risks and maintain support for complex programs so we don’t abandon capabilities before they can achieve their potential. 

At the end of the day, this discussion is not about NASA ... it’s not about the U.S. military ... it’s not about any single company or segment of the private sector.  It’s about America – who we are as a people, and what we aspire to be as a nation. 

We can’t go back to the no-holds barred approach of the ‘50s and ‘60s, but we should not wait for the crisis of a modern day Sputnik to unite us and galvanize action.
We, here, are the ones who can most make this happen… and our countdown has already begun.