As we approach the last flight of the space shuttle, many have suggested that we are witnessing the end of U.S. human spaceflight. That is certainly not the case: Now that the International Space Station, the shuttle's single most valuable contribution to research, is finally ready, the next decade of U.S. human spaceflight activity will be focused on utilizing this unique space laboratory. It is when we look farther into the future, to 2020 and beyond, that we face the possibility there will be no U.S. program of human space exploration, and thus that the U.S. government human spaceflight program will come to an end after work on the space station phases out.

For the past forty years, the space shuttle has been the centerpiece of the U.S. space program. In recent years, it has been used almost exclusively to launch the various elements of the International Space Station (ISS) and to assemble them in Earth orbit through numerous astronaut spacewalks. (It was that task, in fact, that was among the primary drivers of the shuttle's design in the 1970-1971 period.) For the next decade, rotating six-person crew from the fifteen ISS partner nations will operate the facility and carry out a wide variety of scientific and engineering experiments. It is certainly embarrassing that for the time being U.S. astronauts will be traveling to and from the ISS in Russian space taxis. But there will be Americans working in space for at least ten years to come.

The Columbia Accident Investigation Board in its 2003 report called the fact that there was no replacement for the space shuttle in sight a "failure of national leadership." Eight years later, there is still no replacement, although current plans call for an industry-NASA partnership to develop, by mid-decade, one or more small spacecraft and their associated launch vehicle to carry crews to the ISS. One can only hope that the nation's leaders will support this effort, and that it will be successful, sooner rather than later. It will be hard for the United States to sustain its position as the world's leading space country if there is an extended period during which it has to depend on others for human access to space.

Then what? The tougher question is whether the United States will commit to traveling beyond Earth orbit; no human has done so since the final Apollo mission, Apollo 17, in December 1972. In 2004, President George W. Bush laid out what remains a worthy goal: to "implement a sustained and affordable human and robotic program to explore the solar system and beyond." The first step was to have been a return to the Moon by 2020, but the program to develop the capabilities to achieve that goal, called Constellation, was deemed in 2009 by an expert panel "unexecutable." Last year the Obama administration cancelled the program, thereby abandoning the "Moon by 2020" goal, but the president called for a continuing commitment to space exploration, saying, "If we fail to press forward in the pursuit of discovery, we are ceding our future and we are ceding that essential element of the American character."

The White House proposed replacing Constellation with a new approach focused on advancing leading-edge technologies, including novel rocket engines, in-orbit propellant transfer techniques, and improved life-support systems. After a few years, these new technologies would have been injected into a new generation of launch vehicles and spacecraft. However, when widespread opposition to delaying hardware development appeared, rather than fight hard for its proposals, the Obama administration last fall accepted a Senate-developed compromise that mixes in a confusing fashion some of its new approach with elements that ratify much of the Shuttle era status quo of the past 40 years. We are left with inadequately-funded technology development and crew transportation efforts combined with unrealistic short-term deadlines for a new deep-space spacecraft and a heavy-lift rocket to send it beyond Earth orbit.

The result has been a very high level of uncertainty regarding the future of human spaceflight in the "post-ISS" era. NASA has proposed a slower-paced, more evolutionary approach to developing the new spacecraft and heavy lift rocket, and other capabilities needed for weeks- or months-long human space missions which, if accepted, could lead in the next decade to flights to various destinations in deep space. But if Congress does not accept this plan or something similar, there is a real possibility that the countdown to the end of our country's human space flight program has already begun.

Fifty years ago, on May 25, 1961, President John F. Kennedy asked the nation to "commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to Earth." Pursuing that goal, argued Kennedy, would allow the United States to take "a clearly leading role in space achievement." The current muddled situation is certainly not the best way for this country to retain its "clearly leading role" in space. The systems developed in the next years will be the basis for the U.S. space program of at least the next quarter century. It is essential that we make wise choices before moving forward.

There is still time to take a more innovative and sustainable path towards future exploration. But doing so will take re-engaged presidential leadership; too much of the current approach is based on short-term and parochial interests, rather than what is best for the U.S. space program of the 21st century. Only the president has the national perspective needed to focus efforts along a productive direction.

The final space shuttle flight provides an excellent opportunity for Barack Obama to spell out, a half-century after another young president did so, a compelling vision for the future in space. That vision should recognize that the United States neither can nor should explore space by itself; rather this country should strive to be a respected and dependable leading partner in a global exploration effort. Another element of President Kennedy's vision for the future can be relevant here. Addressing the United Nations General Assembly on September 20, 1963, Kennedy expressed the hope that "the scientists and engineers of all the world" could "work together in the conquest of space." Using the occasion of the final space shuttle flight to invite other world leaders to join the United States in committing to a cooperative effort in exploring space would be a fitting way for President Obama both to honor John F. Kennedy's space legacy of a half-century ago and to build on the international collaboration that has been so much a part of the space shuttle and International Space Station programs. A hallmark of the next era in space should be its global character.

This essay is part of an Inside NOVA series on the final shuttle launch and the future of human space exploration. Look for new guest posts July 6, 7, and 8.

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John Logsdon

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