Leading in aerospace

Leading in aerospace In a tumultuous world, the U.S. has led the way in applying aerospace technologies toward defining and meeting some of humanity’s greatest challenges.

The U.S. created the International Space Station program in the 1990s, setting a template for how deep space might be explored by sharing costs and responsibilities. In 1960, President Dwight D. Eisenhower proposed extending the principles of the Antarctic Treaty to space, the core principle being peaceful exploitation. In 1988, NASA scientist James Hansen sounded the alarm over climate change in congressional testimony that’s still debated today. In 1997, the FAA created the Commercial Aviation Safety Team to get proactive about air safety, instead of making changes only after accidents.

I sense this aerospace leadership beginning to slip away.

Instead of leading humanity into space through a mix of international collaboration, diplomacy and military preparedness, the U.S. is focusing mainly on the military part of the peace equation by creating a Space Force and Space Development Agency. These are reactive steps to China’s smashing of an old satellite and sending a missile toward the geosynchronous belt and to Russia’s shadowing of U.S. commercial satellites. Considered in purely military terms, the U.S. reactions are warranted. But those reactions should not be confused with the international leadership and whole-of-government approach that will be required to create a peaceful, stable economy in space.

On the environment, President Donald Trump “has now signed into law the highest Earth science budget of the history of the United States of America every year he has been the president,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said last month. The problem is, no matter what those space instruments might say about climate change, the U.S. has said it won’t aggressively reduce its carbon emissions until China and India do. China “can do whatever they want for 13 years. Not us,” Trump complained about the Paris climate accord in 2017. “India makes its participation contingent on receiving billions and billions and billions of dollars in foreign aid.” And of course there was the crash last month of Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 on the heels of the similar Lion Air crash in October.

The U.S. finally followed the lead of the rest of the world by grounding the Boeing 737 MAX aircraft in its airspace. None of us know yet what investigators will conclude about the circumstances of these accidents and the suspected role of the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System software. But a safety pause should have been an easy call, given the apparent similarities and the fact that Boeing was already working on an MCAS enhancement following the Lion Air accident. Notably, air transportation in the U.S. did not come to a halt with 74 planes grounded out of at least 7,000 in the U.S. commercial airliner fleet.

Of course, what I’ve described here is not the end of the story. They are just a few slices of history. I believe the U.S. can grow in each of these areas and resume a leadership role.

About Ben Iannotta

Ben keeps the magazine and its news coverage on the cutting edge of journalism. He began working for the magazine in the 1990s as a freelance contributor and became editor-in-chief in 2013. He was editor of C4ISR Journal and has written for Air & Space Smithsonian, New Scientist, Popular Mechanics, Reuters and Space News.

Leading in aerospace