The industry whose technological spinoffs have fed the development of everything from electric cars to invisible braces feels neglected by legislators, educators and almost everyone under 25. Among the executives assembled for this panel, the biggest lament is the lack of interest in math and science education, which, combined with the graying of the workforce, threatens the industry's main asset: ever-increasing brainpower.
Recent moments of glory such as the return of the space shuttle Endeavour and Curiosity's assault on Mars helped revive interest. Will it be short-lived? And the giants see the entry of Hawthorne-based SpaceX and other private outfits as a good sign, not merely competition. Lew Braxton of NASA Ames Research Center and Daryl Pelc, vice president of Boeing's Phantom Works, agreed that the upstarts keep the majors on their toes. The smaller players also reinforce the idea that California has the right stuff to attract and retain the industry.
Yet Braxton warned that virtually every other state is trying to entice aerospace firms and their in-house geniuses to relocate. The state's congressional delegation, he said, doesn't recognize the value the industry brings to California. "We need to strengthen our ability to keep these people here," he said.
Aerospace demonstrates that innovation is a risky undertaking, and it can be expensive. Moderator Kevin Klowden, director of the Milken Institute's California Center, reminded the panel that two Boeing space shuttles have been destroyed in flight. Richard O'Toole of JPL admitted that cost overruns plague some projects, and some machines can't get off the ground in the testing phase. Indeed, neither Wall Street nor taxpayers have much patience these days.
About halfway into the discussion, Neil Kacena, former vice president of Lockheed Martin's Skunk Works, took the opportunity to push back. "You canaEUR(TM)t invent on schedule!" he said. One shouldn't have to be a rocket scientist to get that.