Numerous benefits of space exploration

Forty years ago the world watched in wonder as American astronauts blazed through Earth’s atmosphere into outer space and landed on the moon, the first time in history that humans set foot on another celestial body. But today, with the economy floundering and the national debt soaring into the stratosphere, some may suggest that we simply cannot afford to sustain human space exploration. I would argue just the opposite.

Anyone who follows NASA knows that President Obama recently launched an independent review of planned U.S. human spaceflight activities. The blue ribbon panel, headed by Norman Augustine, retired chairman and chief executive officer of Lockheed Martin, and my friend, is expected to release its findings in August. I am confident that Norm will not sugarcoat the panel’s findings, and I am also optimistic that the panel will promote an ambitious goal for manned space exploration. America’s space and technological preeminence in the world hangs in the balance.

{mosads}Throughout its 40-year history, our space program has set goals that required innovation and technology yet to be developed, and the results have been astonishing. Miniaturized integrated circuits, satellite technology, GPS navigation systems, bone-density measurements, miniaturized heart pumps and other technologies derived from NASA research and development have saved and improved our lives. New spin-offs include water filtration systems that turn wastewater into drinkable water, wireless light switches, remediation solutions for sites contaminated by chemicals, the development of Liquidmetal and sensors on reconnaissance robots used in Afghanistan and Iraq to deal with improvised explosive devices. The list goes on and on.

The National Research Council recently released a report advocating that NASA align its civil space program with national needs. While I understand the temptation to focus on finding solutions to present problems, we need to remember that much of the R&D conducted by NASA has resulted in unintended yet beneficial breakthroughs. Space exploration drives innovation by reaching into the unknown and overcoming complex problems. This sort of problem-solving inherently pushes the limits of technology. Space exploration fundamentally necessitates basic research. If we try to task NASA with too narrow a mission for R&D, we lose the possibility of new discoveries and breakthroughs to adapt technologies in new and creative ways that could have unanticipated applications.

Rather than micromanage the type of research we want from our space program, I would prefer a clear goal for U.S. space exploration. NASA must have a challenging, inspirational goal that is ambitious and sufficiently funded.  President Bush gave NASA the direction it needed with his Vision for Space Exploration, which included a plan to complete the International Space Station (ISS), retire the Space Shuttle, and develop a new launch system capable of traveling outside low Earth orbit, with a goal of returning to the moon by 2020 as a stepping stone to more difficult destinations such as Mars. This was a goal that Congress endorsed in the NASA Authorization Act of both 2005 and 2008, which were subsequently signed into law. Our space program has accomplished many great feats in the last half-century and it is only prudent to implement and fund a vision that builds on that progress.

America and our global partners have nearly completed the ISS, which is possibly the most elaborate engineering endeavor of all time. Unfortunately, with an impending five-year gap in U.S. spaceflight capability following retirement of the Space Shuttle, we will have to rely on Russia and our international partners to ferry crew and cargo to and from the ISS. This is a setback for our space program but one that can be overcome with a renewed commitment to space exploration.

I strongly believe that we must close the gap in U.S. access to space and it is my hope that the Augustine panel comes to a similar conclusion. NASA has made great progress in developing the Orion vehicle and the Ares launch systems. Constellation is already in the development phase, so to abandon this plan now would be a massive waste of time, money and resources.

The one-half of one percent of the national budget devoted to NASA may be the best investment we make, providing for long-term, high-dividend research, and technology breakthroughs. Economic growth is driven by technological innovation, and space exploration fuels this innovation.

It takes courage, desire, and vision to explore the unknown. And it takes national leadership at all levels. We must not default on our vision for space or permit other nations to take away our position of leadership at the forefront of exploration and research. That leadership translates into economic opportunities, national security, secure manufacturing jobs, and an increased standard of living for all Americans.

This week we are celebrating the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing. When history is written, America will be recognized for one of the most significant technological achievements of the 20th century, and one of the most thought-provoking human triumphs of all time. This audacious feat, witnessed by billions of people around the world, captured the imagination of all Americans and led to unprecedented increases in science and engineering enrollments at our colleges and universities. The example is clear. NASA is one of our best success stories and deserves our enthusiastic support. Now is not the time to reduce our goals or expectations. Now is the time to set the bar higher.

Hall is ranking member of the House Science and Technology Committee.

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