Beyond the Politics: Space Exploration Is Imperative to Innovation and Inspiration

Science, Technology

By Eileen Collins and Nick Lampson*

Space exploration is remarkably compelling for most Americans, a challenging pursuit that distinguishes the United States as a global leader, while ensuring a steady stream of innovative technologies that strengthen the economy and, just as importantly, inspiring our youth to dream big.

Starting with our individual careers as a NASA astronaut and a member of Congress, we’ve regularly witnessed the enthusiasm and pride that accompany our space exploration endeavors. Those observations have not changed with our more recent professional activities, which often place us before audiences of all ages.

Whether it’s a gathering of community leaders, business and professional groups or school children, those we encounter are awed by American accomplishments in space. They are full of questions about what we intend to do next and what it means for them.

As a nation, we must put politics aside to ensure that expanding the space frontier occupies a prominent place on our national agenda. We need strategic, adequately funded and aggressively paced programs to keep America at the summits of technical innovation and exploration.

Curiosity’s touchdown in Gale Crater offers strong evidence that exploration serves as a catalyst for American ingenuity. Within a few weeks of landing, the popular rover was furnishing us with evidence that conditions on Mars were once suitable for microbial life. And the public interest in this mission generated was palpable.

At the same time, NASA’s search for Earth-like planets around distant stars and the dozens of experiments and technology demonstrations under way at any one time by the six astronauts assigned to the International Space Station also serve as valuable sources of innovation and inspiration.

Together, these and the leadership furnished by the U. S. in other exciting space missions elevate our global standing in science, technology, engineering and math, the all-important STEM fields. These disciplines seed our economic well being, contribute substantially to our national security, nurture advances in energy and health care and further our understanding of the environment.

All the while, more than 6,300 men and women have applied for up to 20 openings in NASA’s astronaut corps, positions the space agency expects to fill soon. The response to NASA’s most recent call for new astronauts, second only to those who submitted applications at the start of the space shuttle era, serve as proof that NASA is vibrant and ready to engage in compelling new missions.

Living up to its name, NASA’s Mars Curiosity Rover has taken many high-def panoramic photos, including this "selfie" (Image: NASA, JPL-Caltech, MSSS - Panorama by Andrew Bodrov)
Living up to its name, NASA’s Mars Curiosity Rover has taken many high-def panoramic photos, including this “selfie” (NASA, JPL-Caltech, MSSS – Panorama by Andrew Bodrov)

It offers additional evidence of the grassroots support for space exploration and the eagerness of our bright young men and women to make the world a better place.

“It makes me want to shoot for the highest goal,” Shree Ridley, 17, explained to a San Antonio newspaper after her Fredericksburg, Tex. High School class had the opportunity to talk about life on the space station with NASA astronaut Chris Cassidy in early May.

Cassidy and his space station colleagues are working diligently on technologies to repair and refuel valuable communications satellites, formulate new medications, recycle air and water, and find more efficient way to burn fuels.

The promise of space and its return on investment has not escaped the attention of our global partners and competitors.

According to the Space Foundation’s The Space Report 2013: The Authoritative Guide to Global Space Activity, the world’s space economy reached $304.3 billion in 2012, a 6.7 percent jump.

At the same time, the Foundation’s April report notes Russia, India and Brazil anticipate 20 percent increases in government space funding, while NASA’s declines in response to sequestration. The size of the U.S. combined government/commercial space workforce declined for the fifth year in a row, falling in 2012 by 3.8 percent. Meanwhile, space employment in Europe and Japan is on the rise, with the latter logging growth of 7.5 percent.

Public and private sector investments in research and development are now distributed almost equally across the globe, with approximately a third each in North America, Europe and Asia, as Charles Vest, the outgoing president of the National Academy of Engineering,noted at the organization’s 2012 annual meeting.

The latest edition of NASA Spinoff illustrates how each stride we make in space pays dividends on Earth. The agency’s 1,800 documented tech transfers now include Vecna Technologies’ QC Bot. Drawn from technologies that produced Curiosity and development efforts that date back to the Mars Viking landers of the 1970s, these interactive robots are beginning to roll through the corridors of health care facilities, ushering patients to appointments, completing bedside registration, even dispensing medication.

We believe the mysteries of the universe inherently nurture constructive ambitions to explore space. That desire, however, requires timely investments in the programs and missions that improve the quality of our lives and those of future generations while bringing us exciting new discoveries.

Unfortunately, we’ve begun to pull back, as though the nation can prosper without the kinds of strategic commitments that have historically assured us economic as well as intellectual return.

As Lamar Smith, the new chair of the House Science, Space and Technology committee, recently observed, “The future is bright for discovery, but failure to invest in innovation and space exploration could leave America in the dark.”

It’s time for all of us to set politics aside on this important issue. America can and should remain a shining light for the rest of the world in the exploration of space.

Coalition for Space Exploration Board Members

*This article was originally published with the Huffington Post on 06/13/2013.