Monday, June 29, 2009

Obama The next step in space exploration

Monday, June 29, 2009
people around the world will celebrate an American triumph. The 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing recalls a period of ingenuity and perseverance that captured the world’s imagination. I was in Houston interviewing with NASA for a spot in the astronaut corps during that phenomenal yet bittersweet moment.

Even as humans touched the lunar surface for the first time, we knew we wouldn’t be doing it much longer. The program was winding down because of budget constraints. The Apollo 11 anniversary this year and the scheduled end of the shuttle program next year evoke many of the same conflicting emotions we felt behind the scenes in 1969. When Apollo missions ended in 1972, thousands of our brightest and most committed became unemployed.

The current plan calls for a several-years-long gap between the end of the shuttle program and the first flight of the Constellation program, NASA’s initiative to return to the moon and beyond. That gap could mean another brain drain as talented, skilled contractors and NASA employees must take their institutional knowledge elsewhere. We were in that situation when we started the shuttle program — training a new, inexperienced workforce. As one of the few people in the world who has piloted a never-before-flown spacecraft, I’m here to tell you — you want experienced engineers and technicians on your team. I also witnessed firsthand the economic devastation of the aerospace industry downturn while working at Kennedy Space Center in Florida in the 1970s.

The six-year gap between the Apollo and shuttle programs cost America more than 400,000 jobs. The Space Coast, Houston and other cities that thrived on aerospace were hit especially hard. Once again, we face the prospect of thousands of layoffs and the residual economic blow nationwide. Based on the long-term view of President Obama’s support for America’s space exploration program, my fervent hope is that he will both minimize the gap and build on JFK’s vision, returning America to its greatness as a space-faring nation. The nomination of former astronaut Charles Bolden as NASA administrator is a positive move.

Also, the administration recently announced an independent, comprehensive analysis of the shuttle-to-Constellation plan. The review offers a chance to consider adjustments that could head off the loss of talented personnel and minimize serious economic effects. Critics may question the benefits of a strong space program, but America’s space industry is a critical component of both our economy and our legacy of exploration. Wernher von Braun, who developed the Saturn V rocket that propelled Apollo to the moon, answered the critics of his day with the facts: “The NASA budget is not being spent on the moon. It is being spent right here on Earth. It provides new jobs, new products, new processes, new companies and whole new industries.” The same holds true today. Adequate support of the Constellation program is imperative to minimize the gap, retain expertise and instill enthusiasm for science and technology in a new generation.

Crippen is a former astronaut who served as pilot of the first space shuttle mission (STS-1) and commander of three other space shuttle missions (STS-7, STS-41C, STS-41G). He is a former director of the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, former president of Thiokol Propulsion and a current member of the Coalition for Space Exploration Board of Advisers.


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