Some fear this week’s final space shuttle launch means 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 this week’s swan song for the shuttle program - Atlantis is scheduled for launch on the last shuttle mission Friday - does mark the end of an era, Mr. Bolden said. After the launch, NASAs 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 saidprivate industry can take over astronaut transport, freeing NASA to focus on the long-term goals of reaching beyond Earths 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 Friday.
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 fulfilled 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.
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.View Entire Story
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Ben Wolfgang is a national reporter for The Washington Times. Before coming to the Times, he spent four years as a political reporter in Pennsylvania. His focus is on education and science policy. Ben lives in southeast D.C. and has played guitar in several bands while still in Pennsylvania. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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