Stargazing, Nebraska style

Friday, April 23, 2010

On Tuesday, April 20, NASA's space shuttle Discovery and her crew of seven astronauts ended their 15-day, 6 million-mile roundtrip to the International Space Station with a picture perfect landing at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida.

On board the Discovery was Nebraska native Clayton Anderson. Clay and the crew of the Discovery delivered more than seven tons of supplies and equipment to the International Space Station. The mission also made history with the presence of four women in space -- three on the shuttle and NASA astronaut Tracy Dyson already at the space station.

I hope everyone takes a moment to reflect with pride on the advancements our space program has provided and will continue to provide in the future. The future of our space program, however, is far from certain.

Fifty years ago, it was not the U.S. space program which took the first steps in space. That milestone belonged to the Russians. The shock of seeing another country first sending a satellite into space and then later human space flights inspired our nation to retake the lead in the space race.

This drive and fervor resulted in America becoming the leader in space technology. The Apollo program fulfilled the challenge set forth by President John F. Kennedy to land a man on the moon and return him safely by the end of the 1960s.

In 2004 the Vision for Space Exploration was developed by NASA and unveiled by President George W. Bush to outline measurable goals for America's space program. This vision called for a return to the moon for in-depth scientific exploration -- with the goal of taking what we learned and using the knowledge toward continued exploration of our solar system.

The space flight program has contributed as much or more than any civilian government program to securing America's technological and economic leadership in the world. The human exploration of space has led to such life-saving technologies as smoke detectors, laser heart surgery, and the Jaws of Life. Technology developed by our space program has resulted in more than 2,000 commercial products -- including satellite radio, cell phones, cordless power tools, and even water purification systems.

The next step in continuing this advancement is NASA's Constellation program, which will develop a new capsule and rocket to replace the aging shuttles which have been in use since 1981. The Constellation program has enjoyed bipartisan support since 2005.

Recently President Obama proposed canceling the Constellation program and relying instead on commercially-operated launch vehicles which -- as of this time -- do not exist. His decision leaves America dependent upon Russia for transporting astronauts to the International Space Station and will cede our dominance in space to such countries as China and India. His decision has been met with criticism from Neil Armstrong (the first to walk on the moon), Gene Cernan (the last man on the moon), and Jim Lovell (Commander of Apollo 13) -- who have called the move "devastating."

I agree with those who have expressed concern NASA will be forced to reinvent itself with each incoming presidential administration. As a member of the House Science and Technology Committee -- which has jurisdiction over NASA -- I have long argued the federal government certainly must prioritize spending to generate the greatest return on taxpayer investments.

Our space program time and time again has led the way in scientific discovery and is a source of national pride. If we aren't careful we could lose a highly skilled and educated workforce, the cooperation of our international partners, and our scientific edge.

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