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PAS11: A warning from the rocket men

PARIS -- Although everyone expects the U.S. and world defense budgets to hit a plateau at best and a decline at worst, the aerospace giants with exhibitions here are keeping up an optimistic front: We'll sell a lot of helicopters, they say, or we'll focus on executing the programs we already have. But there's one sector that clearly wants to sound the alarm about the threat it sees in Austerity America: The space guys.

Top leaders with Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne, which builds the big rocket engines and other equipment that NASA and the Air Force use to put payloads into space, warned in an interview Tuesday that possible spending cuts and ongoing government indecision could hurt or even kill America's space industry. Rocketdyne president Jim Maser told Buzz that if NASA doesn't make a decision about its next big rocket program by the end of the year, it could begin losing engineers and other talented people. And if the government takes too long to pick a new direction for NASA, it might not be possible to fully reconstitute the U.S. space industry.

How does this affect DoD? The military is a huge user of space, and with the pending demise of the space shuttle, there are fewer options for the Air Force, the National Reconnaissance Office and other space-users to get their satellites into orbit. Maser said Rocketdyne has rung every doorbell in Washington to drive this message home, and although he acknowledged rocket science is his livelihood, he also warned that if NASA dithers for too long without a clear new mission, its own existence could become a political issue at budget-cutting time.

Rocketdyne officials told Buzz they're trying to frame their issue in new ways, so that space doesn't seem like an extravagance -- "how come we can send a man to space but we can't send some people to the grocery store" -- as much as a necessity. Spokeswoman Erin Dick put it this way: The satellite that helped the CIA find Osama bin Laden needed a rocket engine to get into space, she said. "Americans don't realize how important space is to their daily lives."

If it can make this case loud enough and often enough, the company hopes it can keep NASA in space in some new form, and stay in business supplying the rocket engines it'll need.

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