De­spite gloomy fore­casts, fu­ture seems bright to NASA chief

The Washington Times Weekly - - Politics - BY BEN WOLF­GANG

Some fear last week’s fi­nal space shut­tle launch meant the end of Amer­i­can dom­i­nance in space, but NASA Ad­min­is­tra­tor Charles F. Bolden thinks the fu­ture is bright and is promis­ing that one day hu­mans will set foot on Mars.

“Amer­i­can lead­er­ship in space will con­tinue for at least the next half-cen­tury be­cause we’ve laid the foun­da­tion for suc­cess,” the nation’s space chief said in a re­cent speech at the Na­tional Press Club. “When I hear peo­ple say [. . .] that the fi­nal shut­tle flight marks the end of U.S. hu­man space flight, you all must be liv­ing on an­other planet. We are not end­ing hu­man space flight. We are recom­mit­ting our­selves to it.”

But the swan song for the shut­tle pro­gram does mark the end of an era, Mr. Bolden said. Af­ter the launch, NASA’s pri­or­i­ties will dra­mat­i­cally change.

No longer will the space agency spend time and money car­ry­ing astro­nauts back and forth to the In­ter­na­tional Space Sta­tion and other des­ti­na­tions in lower-Earth or­bit. Those re­spon­si­bil­i­ties are be­ing turned over to the pri­vate sec­tor.

Within a year, Mr. Bolden said, pri­vate com­pa­nies can take over the process of send­ing cargo ship­ments into or­bit. By 2015, he said pri­vate in­dus­try can take over as­tro­naut trans­port, free­ing NASA to fo­cus on the long-term goals of reach­ing be­yond Earth’s shadow.

“My gen­er­a­tion touched the moon. [. . .]. To­day, NASA, and the nation, wants to touch an as­ter­oid and even­tu­ally send a hu­man to Mars,” he said dur­ing his speech on July 1.

Oth­ers aren’t so sure. Pres­i­dent Obama has set 2040 as the tar­get date for hu­mans to reach Mars or­bit, but crit­ics con­tend that if the Red Planet was truly a pri­or­ity, the U.S. would try to get there in the next decade.

They cite Pres­i­dent John F. Kennedy’s procla­ma­tion in 1961 that Amer­ica would send a man to the moon and re­turn him safely to Earth be­fore the end of the decade, a goal fa­mously ful- filled July 20, 1969.

“When you say you’re go­ing to Mars in 2040, you’re ba­si­cally say­ing that you’re not go­ing to go to Mars,” said en­gi­neer Robert Zubrin, founder and pres­i­dent of the Mars So­ci­ety and au­thor of “The Case for Mars.”

Mr. Zubrin is one of the lead­ing ad­vo­cates of send­ing hu­mans to Mars as soon as pos­si­ble, and he ar­gues it could be done rel­a­tively quickly if NASA ded­i­cated it­self to the task. In­stead, he fears NASA will “waste time and money” on var­i­ous “scat­ter­brained pro­grams” in the com­ing years.

“NASA needs a des­ti­na­tion. [. . .] It needs a des­ti­na­tion that is worth go­ing to,” he said.

Dur­ing the 1960s, as NASA was mov­ing full steam ahead on its lu­nar mis­sions, ev­ery ex­per­i­ment and tech­no­log­i­cal break­through was geared to­ward mak­ing the moon land­ing a re­al­ity, Mr. Zubrin said. That ap­proach helped save money, he ar­gues.

“The faster you do some­thing, the cheaper it will be,” he said.

NASA is quick to push back at Mr. Zubrin’s and oth­ers’ ac­cu­sa­tions. In his speech, Mr. Bolden stressed that “the de­bate is not if we’re go­ing to ex­plore but how we’ll do it.”

One thing is cer­tain: With the end of the shut­tle pro­gram, Amer­i­can astro­nauts trav­el­ing to and from the ISS will have to hitch rides on other na­tions’ crafts for the next sev­eral years.

“U.S. hu­man space flight is not com­ing to an end, [but] it’s em­bar­rass­ing that [astro­nauts] are go­ing to ride on Rus­sian taxis for a num­ber of years,” said John M. Logs­don, for­mer di­rec­tor of the El­liott School of In­ter­na­tional Af­fairs’ Space Pol­icy In­sti­tute at Ge­orge Wash­ing­ton Univer­sity.

Mr. Logs­don, who has writ­ten sev­eral books on U.S. moon mis­sions, also ser ved on NASA’s Ac­ci­dent In­ves­ti­ga­tion Board af­ter the 2003 Columbia shut­tle disas­ter. He ar­gues that the shut­tle pro­gram should have been put out to pas­ture years ago, long be­fore the Columbia ex­plo­sion.

“The right time [to end the pro­gram] was 15 years ago,” he said. “The shut­tle should have been treated as a first gen­er­a­tion sys­tem from which we learned.”

With the shut­tle pro­gram con­sum­ing $4 bil­lion of the $8 bil­lion NASA bud­get for hu­man space flight each year, he be­lieves it’s been dif­fi­cult to fo­cus on new, ex­cit­ing projects.

Aside from the sci­en­tific data that can be gained from a Mars mis­sion, Mr. Logs­don and Mr. Zubrin agree on an­other pur­pose for an am­bi­tious space agenda: gen­er­at­ing ex­cite­ment across the coun­try, par­tic­u­larly among stu­dents who too of­ten lack an in­ter­est in science, tech­nol­ogy and en­gi­neer­ing.

“Hav­ing some sense of an ex­cit­ing fu­ture in space is clearly im­por­tant,” Mr. Logs­don said.

This month, NASA’s Dawn space­craft will be­gin or­bit­ing the as­ter­oid Vesta. Later this year, NASA will launch an­other Mars rover. The Juno space­craft will go up in Au­gust and be­gin or­bit­ing Jupiter when it ar­rives in 2016.

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