As the wheels stopped on the Space Shuttle Atlantis at the Kennedy Space Center on July 11, 2011, I was standing on the runway waiting to greet the crew.
It was a poignant moment for me. Each of our shuttles had its own unique personality and I knew Atlantis best. Five of my seven space flights had been on that ship, and this was its last mission. At the time I was serving as Chief of the Vehicle Integration Test Office, responsible for providing technical support to Shuttle and International Space Station crews. It was my last mission, too.
At 5:57 a.m. that morning in the warm, predawn darkness of the Florida Space Coast, the wheels also stopped on one of the most successful periods of exploration in human history. Atlantis, STS-135, marked the end of the U.S. Space Shuttle program, my workplace for 32 years. Even more significantly this landing marked the onset of confusion and uncertainty concerning the future of one of America's greatest sources of knowledge, technical excellence, and national pride -- our human space flight program.
Today, 18 months later, America's shuttles, bearing the bruises and scars of space flight, rest in museums where tourists marvel at their accomplishments. Parents point out the places where astronauts once sat, circling the globe every 90 minutes, to children who may have never seen a shuttle launch. And many experienced astronauts, engineers, and skilled workers have left NASA and space contractors either voluntarily or through layoffs.
The nation that put humans on the moon and inspired generations of excellence in science, technology, engineering, and math is now paying Russia to transport Americans to and from the International Space Station. And we wonder why U.S. students are falling behind in science, technology, engineering, and math. With a lack of clear objectives widely supported by the public, the government, and industry, has the United States human space flight program, once the symbol of excellence and innovation throughout the world, been relegated to history books?
Last month a NASA-sponsored study by the National Research Council stated that in spite of enormous successes such as the Mars Opportunity Rover, the U.S. space program is in danger of losing its international leadership. Current NASA goals such as launching astronauts to an asteroid by 2025 are not capturing the support or the imagination of the nation, the National Research Council study concluded.
"The lack of national consensus on NASA's most publicly visible human spaceflight goal along with budget uncertainty has undermined the agency's ability to guide program planning and allocate funding," said Albert Carnesale, chancellor emeritus and professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, who chaired the committee that wrote the report.
This is a precarious moment for our country's future. But it is not too late to change course and redirect our space agency to even greater excellence and accomplishments in the 21st century.
Our race into space took a giant leap forward on May 25, 1961, when President John F. Kennedy stood before a joint session of Congress and delivered a speech on "urgent national needs." His talk was 5,842 words long, but all people remember today are the 32 words that shaped the future. Kennedy said: "I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth." I was only 13 years old that day but I already had dreams of flying in space. I remember Kennedy's message. His vision greatly impacted the direction of our country and my life.
However, we would all do well to remember the rest of Kennedy's speech that day because he emphasized the task before the nation would not be easy. "I believe we should go to the moon," he said. "But I think every citizen of this country as well as the members of the Congress should consider the matter carefully in making their judgment... because it is a heavy burden, and there is no sense in agreeing or desiring that the United States take an affirmative position in outer space unless we are prepared to do the work and bear the burdens to make it successful.
"This decision demands a major national commitment of scientific and technical manpower, material and facilities," Kennedy said. "It means a degree of dedication, organization and discipline which have not always characterized our research and development efforts... In a very real sense it will not be one man going to the moon... it will be an entire nation. For all of us must work to put him there."
This crucial juncture is an appropriate time to remember Kennedy's words. The path to any success is filled with hard work, burdens, and challenges. We chose to go to the moon to realize the potentials and possibilities that are within us. America should once again reach a consensus on and make a national commitment to the future of U.S. human space exploration -- a future that will embody the excellence of NASA and the can-do spirit of the American people. I believe this nation must commit itself to achieving the goals of returning humans to the moon and to sending them on to Mars.
It is time for America not to withdraw within itself but to dream big dreams again. It is time for Americans to unite in accomplishing big goals again and to reap the benefits in our educational systems, technical advancement, and economy which were realized when we first journeyed to the moon.
Jerry Ross was one of only three astronauts to support the U.S. Space Shuttle program from before the first launch through the last. With one other person he holds the record for number of space launches - seven -- and he ranks third in the world for space walks -- nine. His new book is Spacewalker: My Journey Through Space and Faith as NASA's Record-Setting Frequent Flyer, published by Purdue University Press.