Outside editorial: NASA must inspire post-shuttle generations

The following editorial first appeared in the Dallas Morning News:

As Texans, we are uniquely aware of the greatest triumphs and tragedies of our nation’s space program. Houston has been the proud home to the shuttle program for more than four decades, and, sadly, it was in Texas that the shuttle Columbia came crashing to earth in 2003.

As NASA returned to space after that tragedy, we called for phasing out the shuttle program. As we wrote at the time: “Space exploration is a worthy, timeless endeavor. The shuttle program is not.”

In 2006, we supported the timetable put forth by President George W. Bush, who said NASA needed to end the shuttle program by 2010 in order to set its attention squarely on deep-space travel, including manned exploration of Mars. In typical NASA fashion, that deadline is being met only this month, a year late.

On so many levels, the shuttle program has been a disappointment. It was supposed to cost $90 billion, but the final bill is $196 billion. It was supposed to lead to regular, maybe even weekly, space flights. The final mission after 30 years will be No. 135. It was supposed to be safe, but it claimed more lives than any other NASA space flight program.

That said, the program achieved great accomplishments, as well. Two stand out:

First, the shuttle sparked inventive imagination in generations of engineers and scientists. Today this nation can see farther into unknown worlds than ever before, and work on the spacecraft has directly led to advancements in engineering and technology.

Second, and perhaps more important, NASA learned how to get back up after being knocked flat. This nation could have ended the program in 1986 when Challenger exploded over Florida. It could have scrapped its commitment to the International Space Station after Columbia. But it didn’t.

In recovering from such blows, NASA engineers gained knowledge that will propel the space program into its next endeavor.

For now, with funding unavailable, NASA has set its sights on helping private commercial space flight get off the ground. Deep-space exploration and Mars remain unfunded goals. NASA cannot allow that ambition to gather dust.

Shuttles circled the Earth more than 20,000 times, perhaps making space flight seem too routine to a new generation of students who expect technological advancement to move at the speed of Twitter. If this nation delays too long, NASA will fail to inspire tomorrow’s engineers, scientists and test pilots.

The words spoken by President John F. Kennedy at Rice University in the summer of 1962 are as true today as they were then: “The exploration of space will go ahead, whether we join in it or not, and it is one of the great adventures of all time, and no nation which expects to be the leader of other nations can expect to stay behind.”

Big: The Hubble Space Telescope, which has enabled scientists to see farther into distant galaxies than ever before.

Small: Hydro-blasting technology. Developed to clean external fuel tanks, this technology is used in power-washing your patio or business.

Big: Space probes that have studied Jupiter, Venus and the sun.

Small: Fiber-optic forceps that, because they limit force with great precision, can reduce the number of Caesarean births and prenatal injury to babies.

Big: Dozens of satellites that have helped create high-resolution maps of the Earth’s surface and aided the military.

Small: Lightning detectors used by golfers and boaters.

Also: Better stainless-steel fry pans, heat-resistant coatings for metal roofs and special effects for Hollywood movies (developed for flight simulators).

Source: NASA

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