Farewell to the Space Shuttle -- How Does America Soar Again?

When I last returned to Earth aboard space shuttle Atlantis, I could not imagine an end to the storied, sometimes tragic career of America’s workhorse fleet of spaceships.

Touchdown brought hopes that my crew’s construction work at the International Space Station (ISS) would see that outpost used as the jumping off point for sending explorers into deep space, thousands of times farther than its 220-mile-high orbit.

But to do what the shuttle could never do--escape Earth’s gravity to reach the Moon, the nearby asteroids, and eventually Mars, we would need a new generation of spacecraft and rockets.

This morning, ten years later, I stood by the three-mile-long runway to welcome Atlantis home. Commander Chris Ferguson and his crew gently settled the orbiter to Earth, returning to a space program I hardly recognize.

NASA overcame the 2003 loss of Columbia, and completed the assembly of the International Space Station (ISS), but as it ends the shuttle program it cannot resolve the confusion swirling around America’s future direction in space.

In the aftermath of the Columbia loss, President Bush committed the nation to return to the Moon, and explore beyond, but President Obama canceled the program, believing it too costly and impractical.

Our president has focused NASA instead on near-term transportation to the ISS, using commercial companies to carry cargo and astronauts to the Station.

Until at least 2015, we will be renting rides from the Russians at up to $63 million per seat.

The president also promised a new generation of spacecraft, capable of reaching a nearby asteroid by 2025.

In political terms, that date is light years away. The president’s budget for the next five years holds NASA funding flat, meaning those new ships may never become operational. Despite congressional prodding, NASA has yet to announce firm plans for a powerful new booster rocket, and its new space exploration craft won’t fly until at least 2017. There is no firm schedule of milestones to actually reach the 2025 asteroid goal.

Americans will continue to work and live on the ISS until at least 2025, but whether we go further and venture deeper into space again is anyone’s guess. -- A shared vision of the nation’s space ambitions has yet to crystallize between the White House and Congress.

The Chinese say they want to put their own explorers on the Moon around 2020.  If we want to keep leadership in exploration and commerce as distinctive American traits, we need start pioneering again. Here’s a short list of what needs to be done:

1. Prioritize and fund NASA’s exploration program, even as we cut government spending. Exploration drives innovation in industry and inspires our students to excellence.

2. Speed commercial spacecraft efforts, to restore access to the ISS we built and paid for. There is no Plan B. NASA should share its fifty years of human spaceflight experience and insist on high safety standards.

3. Launch a series of robot explorers to scout nearby asteroids. The first, badly needed, will search for both hazardous asteroids (those threatening an Earth impact) and fill out our list of astronaut targets.

4. Send robot landers and rovers to prospect the Moon and determine if these “local” resources (water, metals, and key industrial materials) justify a return by astronauts.

5. Accelerate the building and testing of a new spacecraft that can reach the Moon or nearby asteroids. Fly it to the Space Station by 2016. Pick a new booster from among commercial NASA designs that offers the lowest long-term operations costs.

6. Launch astronaut scouting missions to circle the Moon by 2020. If resources beckon, develop with our international partners a lander to reach the surface.

7. Soon after, send astronauts to nearby asteroids to investigate the solar system’s origin, tap water and valuable resources, and learn how to protect the Earth from destructive impact. These multi-month missions will set us on a course for Mars.

As we explore, science will go hand in hand with technology and economic development. Solar energy might be beamed back to Earth, and raw materials from the Moon and asteroids should lower the costs of exploration, and spur a new wave of commercial innovation in space. Industrial parks should blossom between Earth orbit and the Moon.

What about the cost of ensuring our high-tech competitiveness, and pushing the boundaries of the space frontier? The president’s expert Augustine Committee estimated it at about $22 billion a year, just 0.6% of our federal budget. That’s half a penny out of every federal budget dollar. The extra $3 billion per year might come, in just one example, from wiping out the $87 billion (minimum) lost annually to fraud and waste in Medicare and Medicaid.

Today, Atlantis’s last crew-- Chris Ferguson, Doug Hurley, Sandy Magnus, and Rex Walheim—made us proud to be Americans. We admire their courage, modesty, and undeniable professionalism. To retire this extraordinary American ability called the NASA shuttle program with no clear path set beyond, is a failure of leadership, but we can renew our purpose as explorers. The way to honor the brilliant pioneers who built and flew the shuttle is to turn their dedication and experience to opening up new discoveries and wealth on the space frontier.

Tom Jones is a four-time shuttle astronaut, scientist, author, speaker, and Fox News contributor. He recounts his shuttle experiences in “Sky Walking: An Astronaut’s Memoir.”