This morning I watched four astronaut friends drive by cheering crowds at the Kennedy Space Center, enroute to their final space shuttle launch aboard Atlantis. Smiling appreciatively with their strap-in technicians, Chris Ferguson, Doug Hurley, Sandy Magnus, and Rex Walheim took their places on Atlantis’ storied flight deck. I recalled my last flight aboard Atlantis, also bound for the International Space Station (ISS). That orbital outpost is now complete; the STS-135 crew will deliver one last 8,000 pound load of critical supplies and spare parts 220 miles up, to the ISS.

The promise of the Station is that it’s a stepping stone in terms of experience and research to more ambitious voyages. 

The shuttle fleet has put us in the position, after three decades, of setting our sights beyond Earth orbit, back to the Moon, the nearby asteroids, and eventually to Mars. The orbiters and their crews have also built up a tremendous reserve of operations experience, with astronauts capable of taking on complex spacewalking and robotic work that would have amazed the shuttle’s 1970s designers. 

If married to new spacecraft and boosters, commercial industry and NASA could turn our hard-won experience to creating a 21st century industrial park in space, even as we continue scientific exploration of the Moon, nearby asteroids, and eventually Mars.

NASA has turned to commercial companies to provide near-term transportation to the Space Station, probably no sooner than 2015. The commercial approach runs the risk of leaving the nation with only Russian access to the ISS for five years or more—NASA has no backup plan. The lack of “Plan B” in the near term, and the long term lack of a serious program to go beyond the Space Station into deep space, makes saying good-bye to the shuttle hard to swallow.

What can be done? An administration serious about America’s long-term leadership in space would: 

- Increase NASA’s budget, to correct the fiscal neglect of NASA since the Columbia accident. 

- Accelerate the arrival of commercial U.S. crew launch systems. 

- Speed up the building of a true deep space vehicle and matching booster.

The cost? Perhaps an extra $3 billion per year, added to NASA’s $18.7 billion annual budget. This would increase NASA’s share of federal spending to 0.6% annually.

Before you gulp at the $3 billion number, think about this question: can we neglect to make this investment in our future? Consider that Medicare and Medicaid fraud wastes at least $87 billion of our taxpayer dollars every year. The White House can—and must—ensure that we don’t lose the tremendous technical and human legacy of the space shuttle. Here's what we need to do... now: 

- Propose a realistic schedule to the Congress to reach an asteroid by 2020. 

- Capitalize on the nearby resources of the moon. 

- Put up the resources to make it happen within a decade. 

We’re Americans – let’s do it!

Tapping the resources of Earth-Moon space, and reaping the scientific fruits of sending human explorers to nearby asteroids and the moon, are the surest ways to recognize the remarkable achievements of the space shuttle and the Americans that conceived it, built it, and made it a symbol of our vision for the future.

Godspeed Atlantis and her crew. I wish I was going with them.

Tom Jones is a Fox News contributor. He is a four-time shuttle astronaut, planetary scientist, author, and speaker. His website is www.AstronautTomJones.com.

Tom Jones is a planetary scientist, author, and veteran NASA astronaut. He was a member of the 2012 Keck Institute for Space Studies asteroid retrieval study team. For more visit: AstronautTomJones.com.