[Editor's Note: Viewpoint author Ross was the first human to be launched into space seven times, a world record he now shares with one other NASA astronaut.]
Ten years have passed since Feb. 1, 2003, the day the space shuttle Columbia broke up over Texas, just minutes from its scheduled landing at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. It's a moment that will remain vivid in my memory for the rest of my life.
As chief of NASA's Vehicle Integration Test Office, I was on the runway that morning waiting to welcome the seven members of the crew—all my friends—home. Before the launch, I had flown with them from Houston to Florida and lived with them in the astronaut crew quarters at the Kennedy Space Center. The day before the launch, I sat in Columbia's flight deck and helped configure and test the communications systems. I was among the last to see the crew on launch day, and I was supposed to be among the first to greet them upon their return. Instead, I spent the next three months helping to lead the search for Columbia's debris in east Texas.
All seven of the Columbia crewmembers were outstanding individuals who deeply believed in the importance of what they were doing. Their 16-day flight was a multi-disciplinary microgravity and Earth science research mission with a multitude of international scientific investigations. The flight had been very productive, and much of the data already had been transmitted to the ground.
We should honor these heroes, as well as the crewmembers of Apollo 1 and Challenger, by rededicating ourselves and our nation to advancing the exploration of space. In its first 55 years, NASA has explored the universe with numerous unmanned probes and telescopes. NASA has sent humans to the Moon, launched a space vehicle that could return to Earth to be launched again, and assembled the International Space Station where crews continue to conduct valuable scientific and engineering investigations. NASA programs have stimulated the U.S. economy and driven a revolution in communications technologies that are now part of our everyday lives.
However, a recent study sponsored by NASA and conducted by the National Research Council (NRC)found 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 position. Current NASA goals, such as launching astronauts to an asteroid by 2025, are not capturing the support or the imagination of the nation, the NRC panel 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 NRC committee.
This is a precarious moment for the U.S.'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, before a joint session of Congress, asked the nation to commit itself to the goal of landing a man on the Moon. “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 . . . 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.