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Shortly before dawn, mission control received one last radio call, “Wheels stop.” Shuttle Atlantis completed its final mission, marking the end of the thirty-year space shuttle program. Although the shuttle will long be remembered for a wealth of historic achievements, the program’s end brings a sense of urgency on new U.S. human spaceflight systems.
The transition period between the shuttle and new human spaceflight programs holds significant challenges. The call for a robust and capable human spaceflight program is based not only on maintaining our leadership in space, but also on preserving a highly capable space industry that is responsive to national needs.
It’s widely known that thousands of shuttle employees will be laid off in the near term. Less well-known is that much of the human spaceflight industry’s work force and industrial base is shared across multiple space sectors. Layoffs in the shuttle program impact national security and commercial space programs as well. Such workforce losses threaten the loss of world-class expertise in space hardware.
A post-shuttle human spaceflight program is essential to stabilize costs across the space industry and retain rare technical talent. Thankfully, the 2010 NASA Authorization Act enacted a future human spaceflight program that utilizes commercial crew and cargo transportation to the International Space Station, while simultaneously developing new vehicles for human exploration beyond low Earth orbit. These planned capabilities include a new rocket and a new spacecraft for destinations such as near-Earth asteroids, and eventually Mars.
Deficit reduction is of extreme importance in restoring our nation to a sound fiscal path. But the human spaceflight program has a miniscule impact on the federal deficit. A wise on-going investment in human spaceflight would help preserve our unique and world-renowned space leadership. Most Americans agree. Nearly 60% of those asked recently in a Pew Research Center Poll said it is “essential that the United States continue to be a world leader in space exploration.”
A strong commitment to a human spaceflight program is critical to maintaining the United States’ leadership in space, ensuring the health of the space industrial base and continuing to reap economic benefits as we did with our prior investments in the space shuttle and exploration.
AIA source: Daniel.Hendrickson[at]aia-aerospace.org