NEAL CONAN, HOST:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan broadcasting today from member station WMFE in Orlando. For many Americans, the exploration of space represents a bold venture on behalf of both the nation and our species. But here in Central Florida, it's also an important industry.
For decades, NASA provided high-tech jobs in Houston of course, in Huntsville, Alabama, and many other places and many thousands of jobs at Cape Canaveral, just down the road. The cancelation of the shuttle program meant pink slips for some 9,000 people who used to work at the Kennedy Space Center.
But while some leave to look for work elsewhere, others hope that private industry can restore the future of Florida's Space Coast. So space workers, wherever you are around the country, where do you see your future? Our phone number is 800-989-8255. Email us, email@example.com. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Later in the program, the prescription drug epidemic in Florida fueled by pill mills. But first, the future of space. Nicole Creston is a reporter and afternoon host here at member station WMFE and joins us here in their studios - actually I'm in her studio. Nice to have you with us today.
NICOLE CRESTON: Pleasure to be here, Neal.
CONAN: Can the private space industry ever replace all those jobs along the Space Coast?
CRESTON: Well, I'm hearing from some experts that the answer is: eventually, but it will look very different than it has for the last 50 years and some change. There's been one big program, obviously, the space shuttle program. There's been one sort of entity that all of the workers, some 15,000 workers, have worked on.
But now you're looking at kind of a new paradigm. Just last week, NASA went to the administration and told them that they had sort of a new way of looking at their culture, much more diversified is what we're looking at.
Kennedy Space Center would be, instead of working on one project, an eclectic mix. NASA will be over here in one area, maybe the Department of Energy is over here in another area working on alternative energy technology, and over here there's the commercial space industry park, and so on.
So could we have all of those jobs back? Yes, but it's going to take some five to 10 years, probably at the minimum. In the meantime, there's some work but nowhere near as much.
CONAN: The astronauts, American astronauts that go into space, currently ride on Russian rockets, and it looks like it's going to be that way at least until some commercial company develops the ability to launch astronauts up to the International Space Station.
CRESTON: That is absolutely true, and there's a lot of competition for it. Right now, it looks like SpaceX may be the leader of the pack on that specific issue. About a year - well, their full name is Space Exploration Technologies Corporation. They have a test version that they launched of the Dragon Capsule, and that made them officially the first private business to send a spacecraft into orbit and return it safely, which is of course a very big deal.
It was supposed to make its first unmanned cargo run to the International Space Station on February 7th, so - but they've just announced they're pushing that back until mid-March at the earliest because more testing is needed. So we'll see how that shakes out.
But in the meantime, yes, it's - Russian Soyuz capsule that is providing all of the back and forth.
CONAN: So, the next American astronaut to ride on an American rocket, the patch on their shoulder might say Boeing or, you know, something like that, as opposed to saying NASA.
CRESTON: It may, Boeing, SpaceX. There are many private companies out there.
CONAN: And as we look at the culture of this place, it has been one of those permanent industries. Ever since John Kennedy - well, before that, the space program was already booming, but the challenge to get to the moon within the decade and the Apollo program, it really seemed like this was a permanent part of the infrastructure here in Florida.
CRESTON: Absolutely. I mean, everything down to the area code, which is 321. You don't get that for nothing. Apparently, a politician went and fought for that. Street names, school names, restaurants called Shuttles, everything about that area has space ingrained into the culture. It's really been quite a blow and a huge surprise, and it's going to look very different when this sort of diversified KSC comes to fruition.
CONAN: Huge surprise? Everybody knew the space shuttle program was coming to an end.
CRESTON: Well, that's true. Since 2004, in fact. But everyone sort of expected that there would be another large program waiting in the wings, the large Constellation Program that would keep not all of the workers but a large piece of the workers from the shuttle program. And of course that changed.
And now we've got the gap that is going to be going on for two, five, 10 years. We're not exactly sure.
CONAN: We think of this as a federal program. There's also the state of Florida that's involved, and there's plenty of money, well, at least there used to be plenty of money, in the state budget to try to ensure that there were projects to employ all those people here on the Space Coast.
CRESTON: Yes, Space Florida. In fact, they are involved in getting the money looking for the new diversification programs. There are the Economic Development Commissions from our county, where Kennedy Space Center is. And they had retraining programs. They offered resume rewriting for people who were being laid off because they'd simply been with the shuttle program for so long they didn't have to think about those things 20, 25 years.
They offered everything that they could, but it's been quite a difficult transition. Space Florida has been working with the laid-off workers, but it's still hard for them to find work.
CONAN: And what about the next generation? Not only engineers moved here, their children grew up here and went to school and went to various universities to come back and work in the space industry, too. This was family project.
CRESTON: That's absolutely true, and it's not as bad as you might think, looking at the future of the aerospace industry. It is going to be slow for the next few years, as we've been discussing, but this focus on diversification is going to create some more jobs. That's kind of where it's at, so to speak.
Kennedy Space Center, which mostly obviously focused on launch operations; it'll have more technology, development, medical advances, propulsion systems, alternative energy as I mentioned, innovations from creative minds as it partners with private industry. And the future of aerospace jobs, I've actually spoke to a couple of experts who are pretty optimistic about it, that we're really just beginning to discover the economic and commercial potential that space offers.
CONAN: We want to hear from those experts out there in the audience. If you work in the space industry, or maybe if you used to work in the space industry, give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email firstname.lastname@example.org. We'd like to know where you see your future and, well, not only in industrial terms but in physical terms. If there's going to be an American space program, is much of it going to be here on the Space Coast in Florida or elsewhere around the country?
Again, the phone number is 800-989-8255. Email is email@example.com. And when you're talking about this very slow growth here in Florida, well, there was this enormous infrastructure. All of these people - and I'm talking about the talent, the workers - all of these people who were here, who had the ability to make these things work, is it all going to be dispersed? Is it all going to be - take a lot of time and money to re-create.
CRESTON: That's absolutely true. And Space Florida and those other entities that we talked about were trying to keep that talent here because it's an immense pool of incredibly intelligent and very talented people. But there's been a lot of dispersal already. As I said, people are moving to areas where there are other aerospace hubs. And I just recently spoke to one former space worker. He worked in ground operations there for more than 20 years, now he's working at one of the local theme parks on the graveyard shift.
It just - some of the lucky ones stay and are working on the - from the ground-up sort of ops for the new heavy-lift program that NASA's going to be doing, but a lot of them have left the area.
CONAN: New heavy-lift program, we mentioned that they're going to rely on essentially taxis provided by commercial companies to get up to the International Space Station. The heavy lift, that's for exploration to the asteroids and to the planets and beyond.
CRESTON: Yes, the planets and beyond: Mars, moons of Mars, way out there. It's - they're calling it the SLS, the Space Launch System. It's basically designed to be a very big booster to put a big piece of cargo really far out there, as we said; to Mars, the moons of mars, to go as far - to do something new, to go as far as we can. And that's sort of the vision for NASA itself, is to go places that we've never gone.
CONAN: There is also a question of focus and a question of marketing. In the 1960s, it seemed obvious why we needed a manned space program. Well, for one thing, the options were limited. Men needed to do a lot of the work in space. But nevertheless, there was also the competition with the Soviet Union. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, yes, there - they Chinese were involved, yes the Europeans are involved, yes, the Russians of course are still involved. But is Florida, are the people here engaged in trying to make sure the rest of the country understands why we need to do something and what that something is and why we should focus on that and spend all this money?
CRESTON: Oh yes, they are very engaged. Our lawmakers are. Our individuals are. I spoke to - back in July, the people who were going to be laid off in the final wave, so to speak, of that 9,000 people, and you should feel the pride of those - the pride of the project and what they worked on, what they've accomplished, how far they've gone and what we can learn.
I mean, medical advances have been made in space. There's research that's done in space that can't be done anywhere else. It's surprising. There is often the question: why do we have the space program. And the answer is there are endless possibilities for technology developments, for research and development that can't be done anywhere else.
CONAN: We're talking with Nicole Creston, ALL THINGS CONSIDERED host and reporter here at member station WMFE in Orlando, where she does a lot of stories, as you might expect, on space. Space workers, where do you see your future? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, firstname.lastname@example.org. We'll be coming back to talk with Jeff Greason, who is the president and CEO of XCOR Aerospace, which is a privately held rocket company working with NASA.
But we also want to hear from you. Space workers, where do you see your future? Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
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CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan at member station WMFE in Orlando, about an hour from the Kennedy Space Center, talking about the future of U.S. space program. Clearly, budget cuts and other changes have had a lasting effect along the Space Coast here in Florida. Thousands of workers lost their jobs.
But the end of the shuttle program, at least according to NASA, by no means the end of U.S. ambitions in space. Just a few weeks ago, twin NASA satellites entered into orbit around the moon. Later this year, SpaceX hopes to become the first private company to rendezvous a capsule with the International Space Station. NASA continues to work on rockets and crew capsules, among other technologies.
We'll talk with the head of one spacecraft company in a moment. But it's worth pointing out this note that came today from Space.com. During his State of the Union address, President Obama did not mention NASA or his vision for deep-space exploration of the asteroids and Mars. He did emphasize the need for innovation to remain competitive in the fields of sciences and technology.
Obama's speech comes a day after Republican presidential candidate debates took place in Florida, where candidates Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich made statements. They called for a leaner NASA and more support for private space industry initiatives. So that gives you some indication of the national debate on this issue.
Space workers, where do you see your future? Our phone number is 800-989-8255, email email@example.com. You can also join the conversation at our website. That's at npr.org. And you just click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Our guest is Nicole Creston, a host and reporter for member station WMFE. Joining us now from Mojave, California is Jeff Greason, president and CEO of XCOR Aerospace, a privately held rocket company working with NASA. He served on the Augustine Committee that reviewed NASA's Human Flight Program for the Obama administration. Good of you to be with us today.
JEFF GREASON: Nice to be with you.
CONAN: And let me ask you two questions: How important is the space industry going to be in the future? And how much of it is going to be on Florida's Space Coast?
GREASON: I think the space industry will continue to be a growing part of both the U.S. and the world economy in the future. I think how much of it is on Florida's coast is going to be tied to the policy choices that we make as a nation in what we do with the federal government's space program, with the NASA space program.
A lot of people talk about that as if that was something that was going to happen to us, but the future of what NASA is a choice that we make, it's not a destiny, and there are multiple things we can do with the nation's space program, and some of them might have a very bright future for Florida.
CONAN: But it is not necessarily so, in other words. If there's going to be lots of launches, they could come from a lot of different places.
GREASON: Well, I think the - that's certainly true that, you know, it could be good, it could be bad. It depends on the choices that we make. The Cape has a natural advantage as a launch site for expendable large boosters, and really the choice that hasn't been clearly brought into focus in national policy is if we wanted to select a policy that was good for Florida, we would select a policy that had a lot of launches.
And, you know, the more launches there are, the more activity that there will tend to be at the Cape. That's not the only thing that can be done in Florida, but that's an area where Florida has a real advantage over other sites. And it's a challenge, if I may say, in the current posture of our program is that we are, as was discussed earlier, putting our energies towards the development of a larger booster that would fly less often. And that's not necessarily such a great thing for Florida.
CONAN: Is that one of the projects you're working on?
GREASON: No, we have - NASA is a very small part of our customer base. We're primarily focused on the private sector markets.
CONAN: And those are smaller rockets designed to lift satellites into orbit?
GREASON: Designed to lift satellites or, in the case of our own company, we're focused on sub-orbital missions carrying people or payloads up to space and directly back down.
CONAN: And so those are projects that are, well, not as employee-rich as some of the NASA projects we've seen in the past.
GREASON: Well, that's quite true. You know, one of the - you know, the market is demanding more cost-effective, more reliable space transportation. One of the consequences of most cost-effective space transportation is it doesn't use as many people per launch. And that means if you want to employ a lot of people in the space sector, which I'm all in favor of, we need to do more launches.
CONAN: Let's see if we can get some callers in on the conversation, 800-989-8255. Email us, firstname.lastname@example.org. And we'll start with Chuck, and Chuck's on the line with us from Lansing in Michigan.
CHUCK: Hi, I'm a longtime friend of Jeff's. We've known each other for maybe 15 years now. How are you doing, Jeff?
GREASON: I'm doing well, thank you.
CHUCK: The - I just want to follow up on Jeff's comment about commercial because the - one of the drivers that would really bring a lot of the all-the-way-to-orbit launch activity to the Space Coast would be providing a robust commercial environment to allow companies like Bigelow Aerospace to essentially implement their business plan.
They're talking about doing larger, purely commercial space facilities that could take the technologies and products and some of the spinouts from the International Space Station and make, you know, real commercial, you know, no-kidding, economy-on-the-ground type stuff that would require dozens of launches a year.
Last year at the FAA conference, Bigelow, Mr. Bigelow published his manifest, which talked about 20 or 25 launches per year. The entire manifest for the space station is, you know, four or six. So that would be the big driver for really bringing lots of activity back to the Space Coast to support commercial activity and not have to rely on NASA budgets to do it.
CONAN: Nicole Creston, Bigelow is one of the companies you're familiar with?
CRESTON: Yes, it's run by a billionaire from Las Vegas. He is a hotel chain owner. In orbit in fact now he has two test models, 12-feet-by-8-feet inflatable space stations, which is very interesting to think about.
NASA sold him the licensing rights of that, and he does want to provide access to those space stations to universities, to smaller countries that can't get their own access into space or to space tourism.
But it's interesting question, space tourism, because I hear some experts that say that that's a place to focus, and then some others say, well, you may run out of people that are wealthy enough that want to see the black of space.
CONAN: Jeff Greason, I have to say the first thing I hear when I hear inflatable space station is meteorite.
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GREASON: You'll have to discuss the details with Bigelow, the company, but I hope they discuss that publicly because the inflatable station is made of many, many layers. It actually is substantially more resistant to meteoroids than a thin aluminum skin, as on the International Space Station today.
CONAN: Oh good.
CONAN: But what about the prospect - and just this is as an industry observer, rather than for your company in particular, about the prospects for space tourism?
GREASON: Space tourism is, I think, going to be an important market. I think people like to talk about it as if it were the only market, and that's certainly not true. There's plenty of things to do in space that are on a purely commercial basis. But there's also nothing wrong with people paying their own way.
You know, high net worth people being early adopters of products and services is how we have gotten mass-market acceptance of almost all the technologies that we take for granted today. I know a lot of these people who want to pay their own way. They're dreamers who have dreamed of going to space and space happening their whole lives, and they want to use some of the wealth that they've put together in their life to try to bring that day closer for everybody, and I think that's great.
CONAN: Chuck, thanks very much for the call.
CHUCK: Thank you.
CONAN: Here's an email from Maggie(ph): I got my bachelor's in astronautical engineering at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, and I'm currently working on my master's at the Air Force Institute of Technology at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio. I'm 24. Being in the Air Force will allow me to be active in the DOD's space program, which is flourishing. GPS, weather, communications satellites will be constants in the field and will always provide jobs.
I did minor in Russian because I dream of being an astronaut, so I really hope manned space flight becomes a reality again. Space needs to be a commercialized space that makes money or the industry will suffer. That's our job as engineers, to find space's economic worth.
And Nicole, that's one of the things we did not mention, of course, the Defense Department - very active in space.
CRESTON: Oh absolutely. In fact, I went to an engineering job, aerospace job website, and saw a lot of listings for the Department of Defense. And I do want to point out that there are still a number of launches that are happening out at Kennedy Space Center. They are mostly at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Base, and they are communications satellites, Delta rockets, Atlas rockets with these types of things attached. So yes, very active.
CONAN: Here's an email from Martin in Denver: I work for a large aerospace defense company here in Denver. We're undergoing a major shift in the space industry, which is analogous to where the aviation industry was in the 1920s and '30s. This period saw the rise of non-government, i.e., civilian aviation in the form of civil air transportation, private aircraft operators, which led to today's airline, commercial and general aviation industries. Leaving space transportation entirely to the government is like the Federal Aviation Administration operating the sole U.S. airline. I, for one, am excited about the future of American space operations.
And, Jeff Greason, is that a viable analogy, do you think?
GREASON: I absolutely think so. And, you know - but it's important not to overstate the case. Government continued to play a role in making that transition in aviation in the '20s and '30s. But the role that they played was not to set up a national airline. The role that they played was to set up elements such as airmail, where the government could use their limited resources to help stimulate markets that also had private customers. And that, I think, is the most productive area for our nation's civil space program to focus on. Where can NASA purchase services and products that will help NASA do its missions, but will also enlarge the pool of customers for critical capabilities that are also available to private markets?
CONAN: Somebody to send mail to, perhaps. Let's see if we'd get another caller in. This is James, and James is with us from Denver.
JAMES: Yes. Hi. I just called in to make a comment. You know, I feel like a big problem that the U.S. space program has is that the public never really seems to have a firm grasp on what exactly we're doing. You know, we always flew up these missions with the shuttle and ran experiments that I feel like a lot of the public didn't really understand what they were about. And going forward, you know, we're talking about asteroids and other things. And I think what the program, the space program really needs is a clear-cut and bold mission that the public can get excited about, like they did with Apollo, you know, something like colonizing the moon or colonizing Mars, something that people can really understand and get enthusiastic about.
CONAN: Yet, Jeff Greason, people have outlined projects like that. It was President Bush who said we need to go back to the moon. It was President Obama who said, I think, we need to go to Mars, and people don't seem to get excited.
GREASON: This is a subject I care a lot about. I think Apollo has really cast a long shadow on how we think about space. And even the caller, that I agree with, cast it in terms of a mission that we should care about. We don't need a mission that we should care about. We need a purpose that we should care about, and the missions are just tools in the job of serving that purpose.
I think that space, and including manned spaceflight, can be opening a frontier that brings real economic and social benefits to us here on planet Earth. But to do that, we have to be much bolder than we have been in decades in what we do in space. We don't necessarily have to spend a lot of money, but we have to spend that money as if we cared what we were going to get for it, not to spend it for the act of spending it.
CRESTON: Well, I've heard references of a gold rush in space, if you will. I've heard some experts say the first person to get rich in space will cause the excitement, and he may not be wrong. I've also heard it mentioned that if we learn how to mine the platinum - apparently, there's a lot of platinum on the moon, apparently there is something called helium-3, which, if we learn how to process it correctly, we could have a new energy source from it.
Those would be important and economic engines and important things that would - that could change the world. These may be the things that we need to focus on in our - at least in the marketing. Let the public know those are the things that we're working on. That's the kind of research and development that is being worked on by the space program.
CONAN: James, thanks very much for the call. We're talking with Nicole Creston, who you just heard here at WMFE. Jeff Greason is also with us, the president and CEO of XCOR Aerospace. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
Here's an email from Ron: There's another great program waiting in the wings. The loss of 9,000 jobs to the closing of the space shuttle program would be a greater loss if all those great technological minds went to waste. Many of these people are engineers whose whole lives have been spent geared toward making things that are more fuel-efficient, more compact and lighter weight. Why not restructure that program for the development of new technology that would be great for the nation, one in which there's still time for the USA to become the last great leader in? The space shuttle program should be re-geared toward the development of electric vehicles to take the place of gasoline-powered transportation at the end of the carbon age.
Jeff Greason, I'm not sure that's the bold goal that you are aiming for.
GREASON: Well, I believe that there are economic goods that we can achieve by doing the right things in space. If we can, I think we should. If we can't, we don't need the government to re-allocate the resources of all those bright minds into other projects where they will be more economically valued. That's the kind of thing that markets are good at. You know, whenever - you know, we do not anymore retain - as I sometimes say, we don't have the infrastructure to make 1960 Corvettes anymore, but we don't regard that as a national tragedy. Those engineers went on to make other things.
The issue is not this job versus that job. The issue is if we want to continue to be a vibrant nation in our government space program, we have to figure out what we want to get out of it, and then we can ask the question of how should we structure it to get those things?
CONAN: And I have to ask you. Yes, there was one huge project, NASA, which produced huge budgets, huge numbers of jobs and, of course, huge rockets, as well. As we look toward the future - and, Jeff Greason, your company is just one of many - there's going to be a lot of different ideas out there, a lot of competing proposals. Who's going to decide which go forward? Is it going to be the government? Is it going to be the market?
GREASON: That's a great question. And I think the answer ought to be the market. But the government is and will be a participant in that market. And the greatest step forward we could take is for the government to select the services it wants to buy on the basis of cost and quality rather than on the basis of which contractor and which state is going to get the job.
CONAN: Thanks very much for your time today. We appreciate it. Jeff Greason is president and CEO of XCOR Aerospace, a privately held rocket company that works with NASA, among other clients. He joined us today from his office via Skype in Mojave, California. Appreciate your time.
GREASON: My pleasure.
CONAN: Also, our thanks to Nicole Creston, ALL THINGS CONSIDERED host and a reporter who covers space here at member station WMFE in Orlando. Thanks very much.
CRESTON: Thank you, Neal. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.