Pursuing the next giant leap in space exploration

In 1960, Americans were worried about Russians winning the space race. The implications of Russian dominance were not limited to control of space, but included potentially devastating effects on our economic and military competitiveness. But then-President Kennedy challenged the nation to "achiev[e] the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth." In 1969, the world watched the first human, an American, take that now famous one small step into history.  The moon landing not only sealed American leadership in space, but also unleashed a generation of mathematicians, scientists, and engineers who saw firsthand the results of American ingenuity and launched our nation into an era of unparalleled economic prosperity.

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In a time of growing debt, people question the value of taxpayer funded federal research. I passionately believe that federal investment in research and development grows our economy, creates jobs and shrinks the federal deficit. Economists say that between 65 and 90 percent of growth in U.S. per-capita income stems from innovation, defined broadly as new products, processes and business models. But we face increased international competition from countries that are investing more in science, technology and education than we are. If we are to once again have a stable economy, we must rededicate ourselves to the investments that make us strong: small business, education, and research and development. Research and development at NASA have resulted in an array of successful products and technologies that touch our daily lives, including heart rate monitors, wireless headsets, and water purification systems. In short, NASA's space program has helped our country become an economic powerhouse.   

Governments have an important and appropriate role to play in growing our science and technology capabilities and fostering innovation in our economy. The end of NASA’s shuttle program should not mean the end of our national commitment to exploration, innovation, research and education. While the program has not been without its shortfalls, the privatization of human space flight is simply too risky for an enterprise of national significance. 

There is certainly a place for the private sector in space flight. Where a market exists or can be created, such as carrying cargo or launching satellites, the private sector can and should predominate. But by privatizing all of current human space flight, we are jeopardizing our nation's leadership in space exploration and we are jeopardizing our children's future. 

Few people realize that the innovations that brought us vehicles capable of launching into space and returning safely were breakthroughs on par with the microchip: breakthroughs that are not likely to be equaled for a long time. Despite human sacrifices and budget pitfalls, the shuttle program established the United States as the leader in space exploration. It encouraged us to reach for the stars in both our dreams and our actions. It drove innovation and it challenged us to find creative solutions to technological challenges. As we move to the next chapter, it is imperative that we maintain a national role in space exploration. Our children deserve to live in a nation with a vision of the future that matches the dreams of our forbears: a vision that sees a solution to every problem, even if it lies beyond the stars.

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