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AFSPC commander emphasizes foundational space capabilities

PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. -- Space efficiencies and effectiveness, the importance of STEM education and foundational levels of space capabilities were highlighted by the Air Force Space Command commander during a speech Jan. 9 in Nashville, Tenn.

General William Shelton kicked off the 50th American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics Aerospace Sciences Meeting as the keynote speaker.

The general said the future of space transportation in the U.S. is completely dependent on more efficient and much less expensive space launch and that launch underpins much of the command's business.

"And thanks to that emphasis on mission assurance, we're up to 81 consecutive national security launches, an unprecedented record in the history of spaceflight," said the AFSPC commander.

However, the command pays a huge premium for that success, the general said.

"Now, don't get me wrong, I'm not suggesting we should try to do launch on the cheap, but I believe there are some places we can look to reduce costs without affecting our sterling record of mission success," said General Shelton.

The AFSPC commander highlighted that many of the engine designs currently in use are decades old and that newer, more efficient designs are needed.

"I've said for years that the person or the company who finds a breakthrough in space propulsion would become very wealthy," the general added.

General Shelton also discussed cost-savings initiatives like the command's block buy strategy for Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicles and multiple launch capabilities.

"I can see multiple launch concepts becoming much more prevalent in these times of decreasing budgets, proving once again that necessity is truly the mother of invention," the general said.

Aging infrastructure was also on the general's mind and he noted the facilities at both Cape Canaveral Air Force Base, Fla., and Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., are 50 to 60 years old. Additionally, the two launch locations aren't standardized.

"It's a problem akin to the late 19th century when every railroad had their proprietary rail sizes and rail spacings," General Shelton noted. "Once they standardized the gauges, all of them realized more efficient operations, lower costs and greater profits."

The general acknowledged current budget decreases as a silver lining that will force the many agencies that use the various launch facilities to work together.

"My vision for the future of space launch as it relates to our ranges is that they become planned communities instead of the hodgepodge of one-off capabilities and specialty facilities they are now," General Shelton said. "We are working toward an intra-range standardization solution to combine operations, maintenance and sustainment into a single contract known as the Launch and Test Range System Integrated Support Contract, or LISC."

In addition to tackling development, standardization and budgetary challenges, the general also discussed the importance of technical education to the future of space.

Technical education is often referred to as STEM--science, technology, engineering and mathematics, General Shelton said, and the lack of these graduates in America could constitute a national security issue in the broadest sense.

The general, who is also an astronautical engineer, explained the current STEM-educated workforce is aging.

"Over 30 percent of the people in the aerospace industry nationwide will be eligible to retire next year, and that number grows to 40 percent by 2014," he explained.

"We need an exciting STEM curriculum to keep students interested in these subjects through high school so they'll have the choice and the chance of majoring in them in college," the general said.

General Shelton called for partnership between industry, non-profit educational institutions, educators in school districts, colleges and universities to encourage STEM education and careers and shared some examples.

"Just think how many kids we could get off the fence and down the path of a STEM career once they got to participate in some real-world science and engineering," the general said, encouraging high school summer internships with industry.

General Shelton wrapped up his speech by emphasizing the foundational level of space capabilities required to keep national defense strong during challenging fiscal times.

He said there's a foundational level of space that enables many taken-for-granted aspects of Americans' way of life and enables the way the nation's military has learned to fight.

"From highly secure, worldwide communications to navigation and timing; from combat weather observations to the missile warning capabilities critical to defending our homeland, it's tough to imagine a military without these critical capabilities," the general said.

General Shelton also emphasized space assets supporting civilian endeavors, like pay-at-the-pump fueling, in-car navigation systems, hurricane tracking prediction, and national infrastructures like banking and emergency response.

"I believe there's a foundational level of space support that we must sustain to continue to enable America's military operations across that spectrum of conflict," the general cautioned. "Cutting below this foundational level, the level I believe we're already very close to, would likely have cascading effects across the entire Department of Defense."