I recently heard a term that encapsulated my growing trepidation about the period of time, anticipated as five to 10 years, when our nation will lack the ability to launch humans to space. It’s not just a technological gap, it is an “inspiration gap” – those years when our nation’s young people will not feel the sense of awe, inspiration and achievement that comes from seeing us launch astronauts into space, and thinking they could do that (or any other ambitious goal) if they study hard, keep fit and do everything they can to achieve their dreams. Instead, Americans will watch as the Russians launch our astronauts to the international space station, the Chinese continue to work toward their Moon landing, and the Indians gain their own human spaceflight capabilities. We Americans will think back with nostalgia about Apollo and the space shuttle and how our nation once led the world in exploring the “final frontier.”

Let’s face some stark realities. After America’s decades of leadership in human space exploration, we are about to retire the space shuttle, with the last flight mid-2011. Then we enter the gap – that period until the next generation of space vehicles, the Constellation program and the Orion spacecraft, takes over. At best, the first Orion launch of astronauts will take place in 2015 – more likely a few years later. During the gap, we will pay the Russians to ferry our astronauts to space. America’s hard-earned human capital and expertise in human spaceflight will fall by the wayside as engineers and others in the aerospace industry get laid off. And perhaps most seriously, our nation will lose a bit of our soul – the sense that we fully embrace and lead the world in human space exploration.

had prior soul-searching crises in space exploration. The first was the launch of Sputnik in 1957, that shocking moment at the dawn of the Space Age when we realized we fell short in our technological leadership. Fortunately, Sputnik led not just to an intense focus on our fledgling space program, but also to a revolution in science education to inspire the generation of young people who grew up to make Apollo succeed. It contributed so much to
‘s scientific, engineering and technical inventiveness and economic vitality.

Another crisis was the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster. We didn’t just lose a heroic crew – we began to doubt the whole space exploration endeavor. Fortunately, we recommitted to space, made the shuttle safer and again refocused on strengthening science education. (I am proud to lead an ongoing legacy, the Challenger Learning Centers, which have taken 8 million young people on simulated space missions.) Now we have a new crisis – the gap. Just as with Sputnik and Challenger, we need a solution that combines the technical with the inspirational and educational elements of human space exploration.

An inspired nation accomplishes amazing things. Today, students explore Earth using a camera on the international space station, select targets for Mars orbiter cameras, discover supernovae using Hubble Space Telescope images, and work with scientists conducting biological research on orbit. The Space Age gives us revolutionary insights into our home planet, and inspires us to take on the grand challenges of climate change and planetary stewardship. If we leave space exploration to others, we lose an essential part of our nation’s soul, and undermine our drive to explore the unknown.

U.S. President Barack Obama made an inspired decision to create a commission to review our human space exploration plans. At this crucial moment, we need to step back, as a nation, and rethink our commitment to human spaceflight, our grand vision and the pathways to get there.

It was even more inspired to put Norm Augustine in charge. He has unquestioned bona fides in the business and engineering challenges of space exploration. More importantly, Augustine has also shown educational leadership. He led the National Academy of Science panel on “Rising Above the Gathering Storm” that so profoundly connected the changing global economy with the urgent need to reinvigorate our nation’s science, technology, engineering and math education. The space commission needs this combination of technical and educational strategic vision.

President Obama made another excellent leadership choice, appointing Charlie Bolden as the new NASA administrator, and Lori Garver as his deputy. They both have deep experience and heartfelt commitment to the bold mission of NASA and human space exploration. These choices inspire hope.

Yet we can’t rely on the commission and new NASA leadership to reinvigorate space exploration on their own. Fundamentally, this requires an uplifting national strategic commitment – not just to find technical solutions, but also to embrace the visionary and inspirational role of human space exploration in our nation’s character.

With a renewed national commitment, we can reinvigorate the human space program. Through a combination of extending the space shuttle, accelerating the Constellation program, and encouraging the private space industry, we can shrink the gap. We can keep this sector of our economy and technological capacity strong and vital – and make all the discoveries that inevitably emerge from the space endeavor.

Even more importantly, we can keep alive the spirit of exploration that drives our nation’s soul and inspires our young people to dream big dreams, and pursue them with the sense of excitement and confidence that has always led
to greatness.

Daniel Barstow is president of the Challenger Center for Space Science Education.