End of shuttle program doesn’t mean end of American leadership in spaceflight

Our current fleet of space shuttles are not the reusable, routine vehicles we wanted, or what we believed we had built. They are test vehicles, not fully understood, but they have helped to expand our knowledge and improve the capabilities for vehicles yet to come.

Now, as we celebrate the accomplishments of the space shuttle, we look forward to blazing that new trail, one which will finally bring us closer to achieving the real dreams and true promise of the space shuttles: inexpensive, reliable, safe human spaceflight. This transformation won’t take place overnight. NASA, Congress and others still have the power to get in the way and create a self-fulfilling prophecy by preventing it from happening, at least in this country. We will only lose America’s leadership in human spaceflight if we prevent the free market from pursuing multiple, independent launchers and vehicles.

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America’s new space plan is to use commercial space vehicles to reach Earth orbit; to develop key technologies to enable long-term deep space missions; and to create a new NASA-designed vehicle to visit asteroids, the moon, Mars and beyond.  This new plan is an opportunity to leverage America’s greatest strengths to help meet our national goal of inexpensive, reliable, safe, routine human spaceflight. This was the promise of the space shuttle, and that program has certainly paved the way, but it has also served as a warning.

For far too long, our space funding has not matched our goals or mission in space, creating a dangerous, frustrating situation with no clear path to success. America’s space goals can only be achieved by partnering with other nations, bringing in funds from the private sector, creating sustainable launchers and vehicles that can serve both public and private markets in Earth orbit. 

We can free up resources to devote to human space exploration, while not abandoning the $100 billion orbiting national laboratory of the International Space Station, by taking these steps and truly fulfilling the purpose and vision of the space shuttle program.

Much as William Boeing’s 40A 1920s airplane, built to meet the goal of carrying mail and passengers across the country, ended up paving the way to create industries beyond the realm of imagination, so too will the successors to the space shuttle provide capabilities that can be used for multiple destinations. Whether designed for destinations in low Earth orbit, or out to the moon, Mars and beyond.  These capabilities will secure, once again, American leadership in human spaceflight for a generation and lay the groundwork for American leadership through the next millennium, truly serving as the greatest legacy for our magnificent space shuttles.

Long live American leadership in human spaceflight.

Rep. Dana Rohrabacher is a member of the Space and Aeronautics Subcommittee on the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology.