Pushing back at the notion that next week's final space shuttle launch means the end of American dominance in space, NASA Administrator Charles F. Bolden said Friday that the future is bright and promised that one day humans will land 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 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 next's week swan song for the shuttle program — Atlantis takes off on the last shuttle mission July 8 — 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 industry can take over astronaut transport, freeing NASA to focus on the long-term goals of reaching beyond Earth's shadow.
"Do we want to keep repeating ourselves or do we want to look at the big horizon?" he asked. "My generation touched the moon … today, NASA, and the nation, wants to touch an asteroid, and eventually send a human to Mars."
In the meantime, astronauts traveling to and from the ISS will hitch rides on other nations' crafts. Other NASA missions will go on as scheduled. Later this month, the Dawn mission will begin orbiting the asteroid Vesta. Later this year, NASA will launch another Mars rover.
"The debate is not if we're going to explore, but how we'll do it." he said.
Mr. Bolden also teared up when discussing the darkest moments of the shuttle program: the explosions of Challenger in 1986 and Columbia in 2003.
"Some of my best friends died flying on the shuttle," he said.
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