Over the past two weeks, I have been thrilled to watch the space shuttles Discovery and Enterprise as they were being delivered to locations in Washington DC and New York. Now retired, these two shuttles will be on view to the public at their respective museums. Watching as these shuttles, mounted on the back of a jumbo jet, glided at low altitude over these cities was awe inspiring. Talking about it with a group of friends, one person said it was too bad the country would no longer have a space program. Others agreed.
It dawned on me then that many people believe that the ending of our shuttles to the International Space Station is synonymous with the end of our space program. Fortunately, this is not the case. The decision to end the US shuttles to the space station is the end of one aspect of the US space program but other aspects are growing in importance.
The National Aeronautic and Space Administration (NASA) is concentrating now and moving to a new era of space exploration taking us deeper into space with the goal of taking astronauts to asteroids and eventually to Mars. While the shuttle development had reached its nadir as far as new capabilities, NASA will now be focused on the development of new deep space exploration. The basis for this new space exploration was announced in 2011 as the Space Launch System with a planned first test launch in 2017. As well, advanced robotic missions are also being planned and developed.
While the end of the shuttle program had something to do with the economy and NASA having to prioritize its costs, it also marked the end of one phase of space exploration and the acceleration of another one - more exciting and far reaching. All of this costs money. On May 8, the Commerce, Justice and Science Appropriations Bill will come before the House of Representatives for a vote. It calls for a NASA budget of $17.6 billion. The Senate already passed a similar bill.
All of us benefit hugely from the research and development of space programs. Research results in new products, ways of making things, medical breakthroughs through studying humans in space, manufacturing techniques, creation of thousands of skilled jobs and educational opportunities.
It isn’t just about getting to Mars but that is the vision and dream that makes us support our space program. While it is the end of the shuttle era for us, it is just the beginning of new discoveries and the byproducts to our lives that these new discoveries will bring. No, our space program is not over; it’s only just begun.