Science and Exploration

Strengthening America’s Leadership in Space Exploration

By Marc Boucher
April 3, 2012
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Strengthening America’s Leadership in Space Exploration
Mural Commemorating Space Shuttle Legacy.

Charles Bolden: On Sunday, 60 Minutes aired a story that captured some of what the space shuttle era meant to Florida’s Space Coast. Unfortunately, the piece also missed an awful lot of important context about the end of that era and where we’re headed from here.
As a former shuttle astronaut and the Administrator of NASA, nobody has higher regard for the incredible men and women who worked on the Space Shuttle Program. And I certainly understand that for some of those men and women, this transitional period will not be easy.

But before we get to what we’re doing, it is important to remember the context of how we came to our current circumstances. After the 2003 Space Shuttle Columbia tragedy, the previous Administration decided in 2004 to end the Space Shuttle Program by 2010. President Obama decided to add two space shuttle missions to the program’s life, prolonging its retirement into 2011 and found a way to keep the International Space Station operating much longer into the future. This will allow for productive utilization of the ISS.

To get the best options on the table for the next era of American space exploration, the President convened an independent commission of experts. The committee found that the previous Administration’s plan for exploration in the post-shuttle era was not viable under any feasible budget scenario. It was behind schedule, over budget, would have removed funding from the space station program in 2016 after its construction was completed, and would have widened the gap in time we relied on foreign countries for our human launch capabilities.

President Obama took a hard look at the facts and put in place our current plan, laid out in a speech at Kennedy Space Center in April 2010. This plan is a fundamental new kind of partnership in U.S. space exploration that leverages the innovation and adaptability of the American private sector for access to the ISS, allowing NASA to focus on deep space exploration and technological advances.

NASA’s Commercial Crew Program is headquartered at the Kennedy Space Center and the prospective companies involved are making substantial progress toward achieving crewed spaceflight.

The first four of these firms participating in our Commercial Crew Development Program (CCDev) have already completed over 60 percent of the milestones on their spacecraft designs during the earlier phases of the CCDev now nearing completion.

One of the companies, SpaceX, has made significant financial investment in its commercial cargo and crew systems, a significant commitment to this emerging industry.

Late last year, Boeing announced an agreement with NASA and the State of Florida to lease one of the space shuttle processing facilities at Kennedy to manufacture and assemble its next-generation space capsule, creating hundreds of jobs in the process.

In 2012, we will see the first commercial cargo flights to the ISS, and with Congressional approval of the funding requested by President Obama in our FY2013 budget request, we are on track to have American companies transporting our astronauts to the station sooner than would likely have happened under the previous Administration’s plan – ending the outsourcing of this work while creating U.S. jobs now.

NASA last year selected the design for the most powerful rocket ever to be built – the Space Launch System – that will eventually carry U.S. astronauts and crucial cargo into deep space. This new deep space rocket will be processed, stacked and launched at the Kennedy, supporting thousands of jobs in the Space Coast.

The next-generation deep space capsule, Orion, is a Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle to ferry astronauts beyond the Earth’s orbit to an asteroid, Mars and other destinations and will undergo final construction, integration and eventual launch at Kennedy. The entry flight test vehicle will arrive at Kennedy in June to begin processing towards its 2014 test flight, which will test the heat shield system for the high speed reentries from beyond low Earth orbit.

We are also committed to revamping America’s space infrastructure on the ground and recognize Florida’s unrivaled importance to our nation’s activities in space, both its legacy and its future. That’s why the President’s budget includes investing in NASA’s 21st Century Space Launch Complex, a $100 million effort to modernize and transform the launch infrastructure at Kennedy to benefit current and future users.

With all of these elements now in place, and with the help of the Congress, we are confidently moving forward as quickly as possible with the next great phase of America’s human expansion into the solar system.

As the President has said, this Administration will not rest until every American who wants a job can find one. Encouragingly, we’re making some real progress. Just last week it was reported that Brevard County added nearly 2,300 jobs in February. Unemployment in the county was down for the 6th straight month, and as Florida Today reported, it’s “the lowest rate on the Space Coast since May 2009.”

Certainly we know much work remains. But the men and women of NASA, the Space Coast and the country should know that the President and I wake up every day thinking about ways to create jobs, grow the economy and continue America’s global leadership in the 21st century.

SpaceRef co-founder, entrepreneur, writer, podcaster, nature lover and deep thinker.