Guest Column: America’s space act is about to lift-off to a spectacular new future

WASHINGTON — Recently a group of Cub Scouts visited the Johnson Space Center in Houston. The youngsters had a memorable adventure, riding on a Lunar Rover model, scrambling around in a mock-up space capsule, and quizzing retired astronauts about living in zero gravity.

At one point, one of the boys asked, “Why has America given up on space flight?” The answer, of course, is that we’re not giving up on space flight.

This Cub Scout’s question illustrates the need to call attention to America’s exciting plans for human space exploration. We particularly need to capture the imaginations of our young people, if they are to aspire to be the scientists and explorers of the future.

The priorities that Congress and the White House established in the landmark 2010 NASA Authorization Act set an achievable, long-range plan for America to write the next great chapter in space exploration and to create exciting new commercial ventures in low-Earth orbit.

The NASA bill was enacted with strong, bipartisan support and was followed last year by White House-congressional agreement on a responsible funding plan that set three priorities: (1), moving forward with the new heavy launch rocket and Orion crew capsule needed for deep space exploration; (2), completing the James Webb Space Telescope, which will replace the amazing Hubble Space Telescope; and (3), partnering with private space companies on new vehicles to transport astronauts and cargo to the International Space Station.

If we are to move forward, we must avoid a false competition between our long-range space exploration goals — the moon, Mars and beyond — and commercialized ferrying of cargo and crew members to the space station.

In fact, both programs are essential. Assisting development of commercial space capabilities will eliminate America’s reliance on the Russian Soyuz system for crew transportation to low-Earth orbit, while developing our next generation heavy-launch capability is a necessity if we are to expand space exploration from Earth, to Mars and beyond.

Space exploration is not inexpensive. But the money America has spent on its space program has proven to be a wise investment.

Scientific advances for our space program have opened up revolutionary improvements in medicine, communications, weather forecasting and national security and defense intelligence.

Space technology has led to entire industries that today employ millions of Americans, such the satellite-based communication, navigation and defense industries. It has introduced hundreds of products, from micro-chip technology to MRI cancer detection equipment, which we now take for granted. One might easily ask if we can afford not to invest in space; risking that America would lose the next technological advances that produce the jobs for the future.

Even so, every penny we spend must be invested wisely — especially in today’s economic environment. Developing a private space vehicle capable of putting a crew capsule into orbit and docking with the ISS presents significant challenges.

NASA is currently funding four potential commercial crew providers. Moving forward, NASA needs to focus its investment on only those providers that are likely to be able to provide crew transportation services by 2017.

NASA should consider identifying the strongest private firms at the earliest opportunity such that NASA’s precious resources are focused on ending our reliance on the Russians for transportation to the space station as quickly as possible. The cost would be less and the returns greater.

It’s vital that NASA remain committed to our national space exploration plan. If we reconfigure our priorities every few years, we will not reach our goals. Postponing our long-range space exploration program would be a terrible mistake, no less than remaining dependent on Russia to move our crew members to the space station.

In spite of the very real fiscal challenges we face, the United States can — and must — support the innovative space program that assures continuation of 50 years of leadership in space.