Griffin, Harris, Jones & Lampson: Space Exploration: A Wise Investment for America

Science, Technology

By Gerry Griffin, Bernard Harris, Tom Jones and Nick Lampson

*Originally published on Roll Call on Feb. 16, 2012

The roll-out of the 2013 budget signals a new round of discussions and deliberation on the issues critical to our nation. We encourage Congress to consider NASA’s budget carefully. Securing a robust budget for NASA and the nation’s space program is not only an investment that sustains U.S. leadership in space, it is a prudent investment for our economy and our nation’s future.

NASA’s funding level has been in retreat for more than two decades, while domestic spending has increased by nearly one-third within just the past five years. Under funding and cuts to the NASA budget would jeopardize the success of not just future programs, but also those under way. Our space initiatives require diligence and continuity to gather momentum if we are to reap their many rewards now and in the decades ahead.

We are turning some exciting new pages in the chronicle of our nation’s exploration of space, including promising studies of a potentially habitable planet in another solar system, the landing of an ambitious Mars rover this August, the first in-depth study of Earth’s moon and its evolution, a vigorous campaign to recruit a new generation of astronauts and a commitment from NASA to send them on bold expeditions to deep space.

There’s every reason to believe that future strides in space exploration will produce awe-inspiring discoveries, life-enhancing opportunities and new wealth for generations to come. We can turn that potential into reality if we invest with vision and commitment in our nation’s space program.

The focus of NASA and its partners is transitioning to new spacecraft and technologies that will enable humans to explore Mars and create a thriving economy between the Earth and moon. These may seem to some like far off aspirations that can wait. Yet, the development of the engineering and scientific skills base, the education and training of the men and women who will make those achievements possible, cannot wait.

And we should not.

To reap the benefits of these discoveries in the future, we have to make the proper investment now. The new year brings a fresh slate of possibilities and the need for continued action. For the health of the economy, the jobs at stake and our competitive position in the global market, we ask for a commitment to preserve and expand NASA’s budget. Our policymakers should make our future in space a renewed priority. With proper funding, we have the opportunity to make our space effort even more productive.

Recently, NASA’s Kepler space telescope mission confirmed the first discovery of a planet circling a sun-like star under conditions favorable for life as we know it. Suddenly, centuries of speculation about the presence of life elsewhere in the universe found firmer scientific footing. Kepler-22b’s existence stood out in a daily news churn often dominated by economic turmoil, Washington, D.C., infighting and celebrity mischief.

Just days before the Kepler-22b announcement, NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory blasted off from Cape Canaveral, Fla., thrilling spectators who gathered to witness the big six-wheeled rover set sail for the Red Planet. MSL, nicknamed Curiosity by an enthusiastic eighth grader from Kansas, is now barreling toward an Aug. 6 landing at Gale Crater. The mission promises to challenge Curiosity’s sophisticated mobile science lab with terrain that could reveal whether a world within our reach is, or once was, suitable for life.

As January came to a close, there was fresh evidence that achievements like these are generating a growing excitement for exploration among Americans of every age.

A fourth grade class from Bozeman, Mont., submitted the winning entries, Ebb and Flow, to name a pair of twin NASA moon probes now in orbit. In all, 11,000 students from 900 classrooms representing nearly every state participated in the space agency-sponsored naming contest.

Meanwhile, the number of applicants for an estimated 15 openings in NASA’s astronaut corps surged to almost 6,400 — the highest applicant total since NASA hired its first class of space shuttle astronauts in 1978. The missions for this astronaut class will include long-duration trips to the International Space Station to conduct research that will enhance life on Earth and develop expertise for deep space exploration.

With assembly now complete, this one-of-a-kind research facility and national lab is open to imaginative experiments sponsored by experts from academia and the private sector through at least 2020. The nation’s continued commitment to the ISS is also fostering an important market for emerging U.S. commercial space transportation services — for humans as well as cargo. This economic sphere promises to expand as we extend our exploratory reach.

These remarkable developments clearly demonstrate our nation’s engineering and scientific prowess and set the stage for a significant new era of space exploration and development. We can continue to forge a vigorous space exploration program for America. Continued support for a robust NASA budget, from the administration and Congress, is essential to secure our economic and scientific future in space.

Gerry Griffin, Bernard Harris, Tom Jones and former Rep. Nick Lampson (D-Texas) are board members of the Coalition for Space Exploration.