Former Deputy Undersecretary of the Air Force for Space Programs Gary Payton cast a little bit of sunlight on Tuesday’s panel discussion on the future of the space industrial base, by noting that it still attracts talent—but the nation should not take that for granted and a discussion should be based around future needs and not an arbitrary budget exercise. Payton noted, just like the Merlin engine of World War II had a worldwide workforce to maintain and build the popular engine, so too has a workforce built up to support the hydrogen fueled rocket engine. “Are we going to abandon a workforce who has spent four decades building and maintaining the staged hydrogen fueled rocket engine,” Payton, a former astronaut, asked rhetorically at AFA’s Air & Space Conference. According to recent surveys of the aerospace industry, baby boomers are not retiring in large numbers yet and young people are still joining on—thanks in part to the starting salary for engineering still remaining very competitive with other fields. Efforts such as the Air Force Academy’s FalconSat program are indicative that a great deal of innovation remains possible in this field, given the opportunities (FalconSat 6 and 7 are in design phase currently, Payton noted). But just like the Merlin engine, the nation has to make decisions based on performance and mission needs. “These must be conscious decisions at the national level, because if we turn our back on that work force we won’t be able to rebuild it,” he said.
These are the complete remarks by Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III at the Reagan National Defense Forum, Dec. 3, 2022, in Simi Valley, Calif.