NASA administrator and astronaut Charles F. Bolden was teary-eyed when he spoke of the final Atlantis space shuttle launch this week. But his tears were not for the end of a 30-year era, when the shuttle blasted off in 1981. He cried for those members of NASA's space program lost in the Challenger and Columbia disasters.
"Some of my best friends died flying on the shuttle! I'm not about to let human spaceflight go away on my watch," said Major General "Charlie" Bolden, , wearing his U.S. Marine Corps flyer attitude. "And I am not going to let it flounder because we pursued a path we could not sustain." This latter a political comment on the Bush administration's initiation of Constellation -- which has a ready-launcher but no space craft budget and would need $3 billion according to a Congressional budget report, to continue to Mars.
NASA administrator Bolden, with 14 years in the NASA HQ, righted himself politically at the National Press Club Friday stating: "The U.S. will continue to be a world leader in space exploration (whether manned or via robotics) for years to come. We will win the future!"
Joining Bolden was NASA Commander Mark E. Kelly, who piloted the most recent Endeavor shuttle, and just retired from NASA. "I love Gabby (Giffords) very much but I also love the space shuttle," said Commander Kelly. "NASA has a new chapter now." U.S. Navy Captain (and private citizen) Kelly said: "We are a nation of explorers." He called for a new launch vehicle which can take us beyond low earth orbit (LEO) as true voyagers.
My name is Michael John Smith -- namesake of the commander of Challenger whose fuel tank erupted and killed those aboard, including a school teacher. When I met Mark Kelly to thank him for his service and pass along a note from a fellow astronaut, Jim Reilly, Kelly went right to my signature on the card: "You are named after someone very dear to all of us." His hard handshake and blue eyes remembering that NASA fraternity brother then made me cry.
Dr. James F. Reilly is a friend of both men and like both, a U.S. Navy Pilot. He has logged over 853 hours in space travel as an astronaut and over 31 hours spacewalking. He's among the most traveled working on the International Space Station (ISS) but demurs about time records. He said of his crews on both Endeavor and Atlantis: "We were too efficient to get to the record."
He now teaches as the Dean of Science & Technology program at American Public University System and its American Military University college. He said walking in space helped him understand part of the responsibility is to teach others about space studies.
"If you are studying STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) today, and transitioning your NASA skills, you're going to have a great career ahead," said Reilly.
Mark E. Brender served in the U.S. Navy as a public affairs officer and is a retired Naval Reserve commander. As a naval officer, he also served as a White House Military Social Aide to the President of the United States. He is now Executive Director of the GeoEye Foundation and an expert on low earth orbit satellites used for data and imagery collection.
"The administrator is on the right track in letting commercial companies take the lead in transportation to low earth orbit," he noted. "NASA needs to do the really hard science by exploring beyond distances close to Earth."
"There is a vibrant commercial Earth imaging industry now because the U.S. government is turning high-resolution imaging of the Earth over to commercial companies," he said. "Without commercial imaging satellites, the only detailed images of the Earth's surface would be classified -- and there would be no Google Earth." The government should continue to outsource when commercially practical.
Administrator Bolden agrees: "We have to hand-off operating LEOs to the private sector. Safely, not interfering with our own satellite."
"We need a logical sequence that next would be a deep space crew vehicle," added administrator Bolden. "Let's be a space-faring people."
Opinions expressed are those of four Navy guys -- all of whom join the 1,600 NASA scientists who labored over 30 years of shuttle success -- in saying bon voyage.
Mike Smith is a kid who loves rockets and hopes to be on-site at the Atlantis shuttle launch this Friday, July 8. If not, shaking hands with Captain Mark Kelly put him "over the moon."