- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 3, 2011

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.

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 served 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.

Now, Mr. Logsdon said, NASA has more leeway, but the Obama administration has failed to explain the path forward.

“The Obama administration did a horrible job of explaining its new approach to human space flight,” he said. “It dug itself a very deep hole. … There is a widespread impression [that the nation is giving up on its space program] that has to be countered.”

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.

Mr. Zubrin argues Mars missions and other adventurous objectives are “the answer for the economic problem” because such initiatives drive development in the private sector and steer the brightest minds toward careers in engineering and science and help unleash creative potential.

While daring long-term plans are important, Mr. Logsdon cautions that some people are “looking a little further ahead than they should.” He said that while NASA does lack a clearly defined goal for the next several decades, there are still exciting things happening on the celestial frontier.

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.

While looking forward, Mr. Bolden also paused Friday to look back at two national tragedies. He began crying when discussing the darkest moments of the shuttle program: the destruction of Challenger in 1986 and Columbia in 2003.

“Some of my best friends died flying on the shuttle,” he said.

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