The nation that made it to the Moon in 12 years now struggles to build a satellite in that time and is at risk of losing its preeminence in space.
Those words come from one of the top four space intelligence lawmakers on Capitol Hill, Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger, chairman of the House Select technical and tactical intelligence subcommittee, who spoke before an audience of some 1,200 intelligence practitioners and industry at the Geoint annual conference in San Antonio, Texas.
Ruppersburger noted that 20 years ago the U.S. had 70 percent of the commercial satellite market which is now down to 27 percent. The country faces serious risks to its launch industry, he said, noting that France continues to build new launchers and improve its technologies.
"Their companies are getting stronger and ours are getting weaker," he said.
It isn't just commercial communications satellites and space exploration where the US is fading. A string of enormous and nearly complete failures in developing intelligence satellites has left the administration and Congress exceedingly wary of funding new programs, such as the new spy satellite program approved in April by President Obama. "We can't afford any more failures," he said.
The Pentagon has gotten the message. "We are going to have to stop having faith-based acquisition," said Gil Klinger, director of space and intelligence capabilities for OSD's acquisition and technology shop. "The Air Force and the NRO, given an enlightened opportunity, will dig us out of this hole."
To address those fundamental issues, Ruppersberger convened a series of informal hearings to probe into just what went wrong and how to fix it.
He said there were several broad areas that needed fixing.
Top of the list is arms export reform. The so-called ITAR laws and regulations that govern what American companies can sell to foreign countries have crippled the US industry.
"Over time the policies meant to protect us are having the opposite effect," the lawmaker said.
Funding for research and development "must be increased and happen before manufacturing starts."
Commercial satellite imagery must be considered as a viable alternative or supplement to hugely expensive spy satellites.
[Full disclosure: The USGIF, which puts on Geoint, paid for our air travel and hotel to cover this event. Thanks to them for the photo of the congressman.]