NASA cuts push private space flight


Last Monday, President Obama released his budget to Congress for fiscal year 2011. Included in this new budget was an increase of $6 billion to NASA’s budget over the next five years. Along with this budget increase was the cutting of NASA’s Constellation program that was meant to send people to the moon once again and replace the current space fleet.

Janessa Wedel, junior in mechanical engineering, does not think the cut will negatively affect students at K-State.

“Most of your aeronautical engineers are going more toward the airplanes, which is my emphasis.” she said. “NASA is still going to be employing engineers, they will just be on a different type of project.”

Students will still have a chance to land a job at NASA and in fact may have more opportunities than before because of the budget cut. Aerospace and aviation are becoming more privatized, said Wedel.

“With cutting some of the manned programs by NASA, I think the private industry will really expand,” she said.

Private companies are being encouraged to design and build spacecraft for NASA to use once it has decommissioned its current shuttle fleet (Atlantis, Discovery, and Endeavour). Once private companies have the technology, NASA will have to pay to have U.S. astronauts ferried into space.

This recent cut to the Constellation program has upset multiple congressmen whose districts may lose jobs. Others feel using private companies will be riskier and may spell the end of manned spaceflight in favor of robot exploration.

While NASA feels the undercutting to their programs, private companies are rejoicing at the opportunity. Such companies like Virgin Galactic, known for winning the $10 million Ansari X Prize for sending their original spacecraft SpaceShipOne into sub-orbit in 2004, are in the space tourism industry and may branch out into becoming a taxi service for NASA. Not only could private companies ferry astronauts and supplies to the International Space Station, but they could also deploy and repair satellite and cleanup space junk.

NASA is already utilizing private vendors for some purposes. Sam Verhovek, Popular Science magazine writer, said he does not believe the private industry will take us to the moon. Instead, most companies will focus on short-range missions for NASA to the International Space Station.

Some of the largest competitors in this new market are Virgin Galactic, Masten Space Systems, Blue Origin, XCOR Aerospace and SpaceX. Most if not all of these companies have working prototypes that could start transporting people to space for science or pleasure within the next few years.

K-State engineers who are interested in aviation or aerospace have many advantages to help them when it comes to getting jobs in the industry.

The K-State chapter of the Society of Automotive Engineers’ Aero Design Team is one of the best in the country. The team has received several national and international titles in the past years, such as SAE Aero Design West competition where they won first place in 2007 and 2009. In this organization they build an aircraft to lift as much weight as possible and compete against other teams.

Not only are students able to prepare themselves for the aviation industry with practice in college but also with internships. Companies are still providing opportunities for students.

Wedel worked for GE Aviation last summer and she has another job lined up for Spirit Aerosystems, an off-shoot of Boeing.

“So they build the body of the 737 and the nose of the brand new 787, the Dreamliner,” she said.

Both the private and public aviation and aerospace industry is still alive, continuing to offer students career opportunities, regardless of budget increases and program cuts to NASA.