It wasn't long after Sputnik's "beep, beep, beep" thrilled Russians and frightened Americans that an East Aurora company, Moog Inc., became deeply involved in our desperate campaign to catch up and become a world leader in space exploration.
Starting with the 1960s Gemini program right through to the Space Shuttle, Moog has been making actuators -- steering gear -- to direct and correct the flight paths of hypersonic vehicles headed into orbit, to the Moon and beyond. Richard Aubrecht, Moog vice chairman for strategy and technology, believes President Obama's 2011 budget will undermine a pattern that has made America the undisputed champion in the space race.
For a half a century, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration has been deciding which companies would get the contracts for research and production.
Now the Obama administration wants to put private contractors in the driver's seat and transform NASA into some kind of a passive, benign observer of what the contractors do. This isn't a public vs. private dispute. Almost three-quarters of NASA's work is already farmed out to companies like Moog and hundreds of others.
The point is who would be in charge, an accountable government agency, NASA, or connected wheeler-dealers.
In addition, Obama's budget kills funding for NASA's Constellation project, which would resume manned flight to the Moon, to Mars, and beyond. The money that had been going to Constellation would instead go to new commercial ventures that would ferry astronauts to low earth orbit destinations.
Among the candidates for this new role are venture capitalists like South Africa-born Elon Musk, the billionaire founder of PayPal, and the head of a new firm called SpaceX. Another is Orbital Sciences. It builds vehicles and launches them.
Irrespective of their technical abilities, both have fulfilled the main requirement for doing business here. They are both big campaign contributors.
Neither however, was a major contributor to Barack Obama's presidential campaign. The administration's notions stem from growing unhappiness with NASA's leadership. This came to a head in a report last year done by a committee headed by Norman Augustine, the retired head of Lockheed Martin. Briefly, Augustine's report said the aging NASA had lost its zip, its competitiveness and its quest for excellence and badly needs shaking up.
Obama's contempt for NASA is fueling a rumor that he has offered the job of NASA administrator to retiring Rep. Bart Gordon, D-Tenn., a lawyer-politician and chairman of the House Science Committee, in exchange for a "yes" vote on the health care bill.
Gordon's possible agreement is a truly stupefying development. Gordon had already spoken out strongly against Obama's plans for NASA, saying his proposals "lack vision." Gordon accused the Obama of tampering with one of the country's "crown jewels." Many others in Congress, including Rep. Chris Lee, R-Williamsville, oppose the cuts to Constellation and reframing NASA's role.
Former NASA administrator Michael Griffin says Obama is opting out of manned space flight to outer space "for the foreseeable future." A former Moonwalk astronaut and former U.S. senator, Harrison Schmitt, R-N.M., called Obama's plans "bad for the country" and a denial of "American exceptionalism." Aubrecht says defunding Constellation would interrupt the steady flow of resources and committed scientific talent that is needed to ensure America's continued space leadership.
That leadership would "most likely" be picked up by the Chinese. Closer to the ground, the abrupt cancellation of the program that was intended to succeed the Space Shuttle, which will soon be retired, could mean layoffs at Moog.