In his gloomy Washington Post commentary today on yesterday’s ceremony transferring ownership of the Space Shuttle Discovery from NASA to the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum, Charles Krauthammer urged readers to think of that transfer as the funeral for U.S. leadership in space. Nothing could be further from the truth. The United States remains far and away the world leader in space technology and exploration. As long as appropriate support continues to be forthcoming from Congress, this will remain the case indefinitely.
Krauthammer suggests that if China succeeds in putting astronauts on the Moon by 2025, as that country plans, they will have “overtaken” the United States. How absurd! Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the Moon in 1969. How does China managing this feat fifty-six years later, if this happens, amount to “overtaking” us? Obviously, the United States could repeat its lunar feats of the 1960s and 1970s if that were the next most important thing to do in space exploration for the money. But it isn’t! We may well return to the lunar surface again as one of many destinations in the future, but for now, our immediate, more scientifically rewarding goals include sending astronauts to an asteroid in the 2020s, and Mars in the mid-2030s. They bring scientific and technological challenges worthy of a great nation and a true world leader.
Krauthammer doesn’t even mention the International Space Station. The United States led the planning, design, and construction of this $53 billion marvel – an orbiting science and technology-development laboratory that has been continuously manned since 2000. Under the previous administration’s plan, it was underfunded after 2016, implying intent to abandon it long before its scientific and engineering potential had been realized. Under the new bipartisan space-exploration plans worked out between the Obama Administration and the Congress, we will continue to operate the Space Station until at least 2020 and perhaps beyond.
In robotic space exploration, too, nobody else comes close. At this very moment, a stream of data is flowing to us from missions orbiting the Sun, Mercury, the Moon, the asteroid Vesta, Mars, and Saturn. We now have missions on the way to Jupiter, Pluto and Mars. The Hubble, Spitzer, Chandra, and Fermi space telescopes continue to make groundbreaking discoveries on an almost daily basis. We’re on track in the construction of the James Webb Space Telescope, the most sophisticated science telescope ever constructed to help us reveal the mysteries of the cosmos in ways never before possible. Last year, the MESSENGER spacecraft became the first-ever to enter orbit around Mercury. And shortly thereafter, the Ebb and Flow satellites began orbiting and mapping the gravity field of the Moon.
We are ahead in looking downward from space as well as in looking outward. Sixteen Earth-science missions currently in orbit study the Earth as an integrated system. In 2011, Aquarius SAC-D produced the first global view of ocean surface salinity and the Suomi National Polar-orbiting Partnership satellite began making observations of Earth’s weather and climate. No other country can match our capabilities in Earth observation from space.
Declining to remind readers that it was President Bush, not President Obama who ended the shuttle program (President Obama actually added 2 flights), Krauthammer carps about the Bush Administration’s successor to the Space Shuttle having been canceled in this Administration, but the Bush “Constellation” program as designed was behind schedule and over budget – “unexecutable” in the words of the independent blue-ribbon commission set up by the Obama Administration to review our options. In cancelling Constellation per se, we have kept the parts of it that made sense. A new heavy-lift rocket and multi-purpose crew vehicle developed out of the Constellation program will be instrumental in carrying U.S. astronauts to an asteroid, to other deep-space destinations, and ultimately to Mars.
When Krauthammer complains about the expanded role for the private sector in carrying U.S. astronauts and cargo to the Space Station, as foreseen in the current bipartisan plan and as is progressing well in practice, he seems unaware that every U.S. launch vehicle and space capsule in history – including the Space Shuttle – has been built by private corporations. That is continuing, but on a more competitive basis. Indeed, in the same week as Discovery’s transfer to the Smithsonian, NASA gave the green light to a commercial company, SpaceX, for a planned April 30 launch from Kennedy Space Center, with a berthing at the ISS a few days later. Later this year, Orbital Sciences will launch their Cygnus module and Antares launch vehicle from Wallops Island, Virginia. In FY 2013, NASA plans for at least three flights delivering research and logistics hardware to the ISS by U.S.-developed cargo delivery systems.
It should also be noted that NASA’s focus on new space technologies is seeding innovation, supporting economic vitality and helping create new jobs and expanded opportunities for a skilled workforce.
We understand that in this election year, there are some who will go out of their way to paint a pessimistic view of the country in order to score political points. But, we believe that America’s technological advancement and continued leadership in space exploration is too important to fall prey to political distortions.
Our Shuttle program was an historic achievement, but an even brighter future is on the horizon. Make no mistake about it - the future in space is happening right now, and it is being built right here in America.
Charles Bolden is the Administrator of NASA and Dr. John P. Holdren is Assistant to the President for Science and Technology, Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, and Co-Chair of the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology