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As Shuttle Retires, What’s NASA’s New Mission?

July 11, 2011 at 12:00 AM EST
After 30 years and millions of miles traveled, the 135th and final mission of NASA's space shuttle program blasted off Friday. Ray Suarez discusses the post-shuttle era of space exploration and NASA's future purpose with former astronaut Mae Jemison, former NASA official Eric Sterner and science correspondent Miles O'Brien.
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GWEN IFILL: Now, as the shuttle Atlantis makes its final rendezvous with the International Space Station, what comes next?

Ray Suarez looks at the future of the American space program.

MAN: Two, one, zero, and liftoff!

RAY SUAREZ: It was the final countdown to the beginning of the end of the space shuttle era. After 30 years and millions of miles traveled, STS-135, or the Space Transportation System’s 135th and final flight, blasted off Friday from Florida’s Kennedy Space Center.

NARRATOR: The space shuttle spread its wings one final time for the start of a sentimental journey into history.

RAY SUAREZ: Just over 30 years earlier, on April 12, 1981, NASA launched its very first space shuttle mission, as Columbia took flight.

The space agency originally promised 50 flights a year, but never managed more than nine. The total bill was $196 billion, or roughly $1.5 billion a flight. One of the original goals was building a permanent base in space, the now-completed International Space Station.

In 1990, the shuttle Discovery launched the Hubble space telescope. And in a famous repair mission, another crew serviced the Hubble in orbit to fix blurry images. There were two very public tragedies.

MAN: Challenger, go at throttle-up.

RAY SUAREZ: The Challenger explosion just after launch in Jan. 1986 killed seven astronauts, including Christa McAuliffe, the first teacher in space. And, in 2003, Columbia was destroyed as it returned from a mission, and seven more astronauts died.

This time around, only four astronauts are aboard, along with enough supplies to keep the space station stocked for another year. Once they have returned home, it will be up to Russia’s Soyuz capsules to ferry supplies and perform any rescues.

Hundreds of Americans who worked on the shuttle program will be out of a job. They had hoped otherwise, after President Bush announced the retirement of the shuttles and put NASA on a course back to the moon and eventually Mars with the Constellation program. But the Bush administration and Congress never fully funded the program, and it may not have reached the moon before 2028.

President Obama canceled Constellation in favor of possible trips to an asteroid or Mars, but details remain sketchy at best.

On Sunday, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden talked optimistically about the nation’s future in space on CNN.

CHARLES BOLDEN, NASA administrator: Between 2014 and 2015, I am very hopeful that you will see American astronauts climb back aboard American-produced spacecraft to go to the International Space Station, and not very long after that, start flying some test hops on a NASA-led effort to explore beyond low Earth orbit, go to deep space.

RAY SUAREZ: As for the current mission, Atlantis docked with the International Space Station for the last time over the weekend, and then this morning…

(MUSIC)

RAY SUAREZ: …a wakeup song for the astronauts from mission control, with lyrics symbolic of NASA’s hopes for the future.

We look at those questions about the future now with Dr. Mae Jemison, a former astronaut who flew the space shuttle Endeavour in 1992 and was the first woman of color to go into space. She now runs the technology consulting firm she founded. Eric Sterner, an aerospace consultant who served as associate deputy director for policy and planning at NASA during the George W. Bush administration, he’s now with the George C. Marshall Institute. And NewsHour science correspondent Miles O’Brien, who has long covered NASA.

And, Miles, let me start with you.

What is NASA for now? Now that the space shuttle program has been wound down, what is the day-to-day assignment there?

MILES O’BRIEN: It’s time for NASA to get out of low Earth orbit, Ray. And that is the good news out of this, that, with the shuttle gone, the agency can at least contemplate pushing the boundaries of space and ultimately thinking about putting footprints on Mars.

You know, we have some robots that have been on Mars now for approaching seven years — or beyond seven years now — Spirit and Opportunity. And they have done a lot of wonderful work trying to figure out that Mars was once warm and wet.

Well, even the principal investigator in charge of that program would tell you that all that work that took all that time could have been done in just a couple of weeks with a human being on the surface, and perhaps could unlock that mystery of whether we are alone in the universe. That is a good mission, and that’s where NASA should be focused.

RAY SUAREZ: But what is going on there right now? Do they you have a specific thing that they have to do by a specific date? And do they have money to do it?

MILES O’BRIEN: Well, that is the problem. I would say the answer is big question marks in both cases.

The fact of the matter is the money, which should have been appropriated initially when George W. Bush announced the cancellation of the shuttle program, never materialized. And so the program that he envisioned, which would have sent astronauts back to the moon and ultimately beyond to Mars never took hold. And so Obama reversed course.

And now we’re in a situation where there is no specific date, no specific destination, just embracing some technologies that will allow NASA to push beyond low Earth orbit. Will there be funding for that? Will there be the political will and leadership to follow through? Those are big questions.

RAY SUAREZ: Dr. Jemison, did NASA make, short-term, the right choices; don’t head off on something until you know where you are headed?

DR. MAE JEMISON, former space shuttle astronaut: Well, I don’t think it’s the issue of don’t head off.

I think the issue is really, was Constellation going somewhere, and was it worth waiting until 2028, getting rid of the space station and the shuttle program, and not having any human involvement in space? So I think it was the right answer, given the budget constraints, given the time and what we needed to do.

I think that one of the pieces that’s lost in this is that the commercial spaceflight effort is really important, because now we’re really ushering in another era of space exploration, where people have an opportunity who are not part of the government to have humans go into space. And I would add on that, that what the government’s role really has to be — NASA’s role has to be to push space exploration further, to do the things that companies can’t do, that individuals can’t do.

So, yes, it was the right decision.

RAY SUAREZ: More on government — OK. More on government involvement later.

Eric Sterner, is NASA taking the right course right now, now that the shuttle program has reached its end?

ERIC STERNER, former NASA official: Honestly, I think we find ourselves at an impasse.

You saw an authorization bill enacted from Congress. The president signed it. And the key thing in that is the space launch system, a very large rocket. Honestly, it looks a lot like Constellation. One of the challenges you have is — is NASA and Congress disagree on whether or not it’s doable.

Congress says, do it, here’s the money, which it hasn’t provided. And NASA says it’s not doable. So, you are at a point right now where the fundamental entities and government that pay attention in space don’t agree on either the mission, how to get there — you don’t know where you are going — and how much it’s going to cost, and when — time frame you can do it in.

RAY SUAREZ: Do you have to move quickly to solve that tension?

ERIC STERNER: I think you do. I think the likelihood of that happening is very low.

Space politics are such that it only comes up every few years that Congress and the executive branch have the willpower to make big decisions. We tend to find that in an authorization bill, where we try to lay out a strategic framework for the agency in the future. Having done that once and spilled a lot of political blood in the small arena of space politics, I don’t detect a lot of eagerness to do it again.

RAY SUAREZ: Dr. Jemison, implicit in many of the public statements about what happens to NASA now is this idea that, if you aren’t moving forward, you’re moving backward. That, in space, there is no such thing as standing still. Is that true? Do things erode unless you are actively moving forward?

DR. MAE JEMISON: I think that there is an erosion in terms of people’s impression of what is happening.

But I think there is a forward movement as you start to look again at the commercial vehicles, as you start to look at actually developing propulsion systems. That’s a forward movement. But, yes, I think it’s really critical that Congress commits and actually funds programs, and not — doesn’t retrench on them and say, do everything with nothing.

RAY SUAREZ: Miles, there is some concern that — of a more practical nature, that, because there is no active craft to take Americans into space, there are real safety considerations about the International Space Station, and the need to keep America in the game, even if we’re not actively pursuing another mission. Is that — is that right?

MILES O’BRIEN: Well, the space station was built by the shuttle, largely. And the shuttle was designed to service and maintain a space station.

So, in a perfect world, you would like to have a space shuttle as long as you have a space station. Now, the space station is now built. We’re just now beginning to get some sense of what its scientific capability might be, and the shuttle goes away. So, how do we maintain that?

Now, there’s a lot of smart engineers in Houston and in other places that have been spending a lot of time thinking about this. And this past mission was all about getting as much stuff, just stuffing that Atlantis to the gills with food and other things, anticipating problems that, you know, uniquely, the shuttle could help as the station goes down the line.

The fact is, between the Russian Soyuz rocket and Progress rocket, European and Japanese freighters, they have got it figured out. And I think they will be able to keep the station going. There are some big pieces that only the shuttle can deliver ideally. But, you know, these are what these engineers sort of thrive on, trying to figure out a way to keep the thing going. And they will.

RAY SUAREZ: Some people, Eric Sterner, have talked about private commercial involvement in space, and NASA getting out of the way, creating an opportunity.

Is — are there some things, as Dr. Jemison suggested, that only government can do, or is this really a moment that the commercial space people have been waiting for?

ERIC STERNER: I think there’s two parts to the answer.

The first is, when it comes to the private sector, NASA relies on the private sector for almost everything it does. The private sector built the shuttle. It operates the shuttle. The key decision-making posts are still civil servants at NASA. So, the relationship between the government and private sector, it’s not such that we can’t do things differently in relying on the private sector.

So, I — part of the administration’s answer doesn’t concern me. What I do worry about is this notion that everything will be commercial, and, therefore, magic, will have these magical capabilities which will sort of appear. Generally, to — for something to exist commercially, it’s success and sustainability is dependent on private markets, just plain old-fashioned laws of supply and demand.

The administration seems to think that, by getting these guys started, basically providing massive subsidies to get them into the business, this commercial demands, private demand will magically appear and the government will be able to save money by buying capabilities at the margin.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, Dr. Jemison, let me turn to you with that same question. Can space travel go ahead as a private concern without large U.S. government involvement?

DR. MAE JEMISON: Well, I’m going to have to go along with Eric on part of this.

It’s because, you know, the government still is paying a fair amount of money in order to make sure that these commercial entities move ahead. I think that, over the long run, humans going into space on commercial craft will be something that happens. But the government still needs to have the capacity to put humans into space. And I think it’s one of those things that we’re working on.

RAY SUAREZ: So, I’m not sure; is that a yes or a no?

(LAUGHTER)

DR. MAE JEMISON: It’s one of those things where you say, yes, we need to continue to have a government role in putting humans into space, and, yes, the commercial country has a role to play.

RAY SUAREZ: Dr. Jemison, thanks a lot.

Eric Sterner and Miles O’Brien, good to have you with us.

ERIC STERNER: Thank you.

RAY SUAREZ: Bye-bye.