Within a few days, orbiter Atlantis is scheduled to lift off on NASA’s final space shuttle mission — a flight that promises to bring the difficult assembly and outfitting of the international space station (ISS) to a successful close. We’ve known this day was coming for much of the last decade and witnessed space shuttle’s Discovery and Endeavour enter retirement earlier this year.

Thousands of Americans who have contributed to the success of NASA’s longest-running human spaceflight program can look back with pride. They’ve pioneered reusable spacecraft operations, satellite retrieval and repair, and demonstrated the assembly of large structures in Earth orbit. They transformed our understanding of the universe with the launch and servicing of the Hubble Space Telescope and strengthened ties with other visionary nations through the orbital assembly of ISS.

The shuttle ushered into space more men and women from increasingly diverse cultural and professional backgrounds than any other spacecraft.

While each of these accomplishments represents an impressive symbol of U.S. leadership, this is no time to coast. Russia, China and India represent experienced, or increasingly capable, rivals. The human and robotic exploration and development of space should be a U.S. national imperative.

We must not permit that calling to fall victim to political partisanship, opportunism and half-hearted stewardship. It’s time to proffer a sustainable framework to advance this hard-won source of national pride with a strategy for compelling missions to new destinations that rests on a foundation of sustained bipartisanship, adequate resources and a leadership committed to drawing the best from government, the aerospace industry and other stakeholders.

Space exploration is risky and expensive. Our future pursuits should be bold and inspirational to justify both. Continual wavering is no less than a prescription for expensive false starts, squandering a skilled aerospace industrial base envied around the world and betrayal of young Americans in search of inspiration.

We can do better than look to another nation to transport our astronauts to and from the U.S.-managed orbiting science laboratory — our national lab — once the shuttle retires. And as the only country ever to explore another planetary body with humans, we must do better.

As a nation, we have long prospered from the tremendous resolve of an idealistic, oft-tested citizenry. Ours is a country founded on the value of boundless opportunity for all. We nurture a resolve to tackle challenges, lead others through difficult times, harbor an enviable fascination with cutting edge science and technology, possess the willingness to adapt to change and sacrifice when necessary.

This great spirit guided the United States through world war, a Great Depression and vaulted us to impressive achievements in the exciting first half-century of human space exploration.

Most recently, we’ve been tested by global terrorism and economic upheaval. We face difficult choices on energy, healthcare, education and the stewardship of our planet — to name just some of the most pressing issues.

The Coalition for Space Exploration, a team of highly respected aerospace companies and organizations committed to ensuring that the United States leads the world in space, science and technology by reinforcing space exploration benefits with the public and our policy makers, is well attuned to these challenges.

In order to explore new worlds and expand our economic sphere, we must invest our resources and deploy our talents effectively. This new framework must serve to keep our minds trained for the journeys of space exploration, our hearts focused on inspiring goals and our bodies and souls conditioned for the hard work required.

Past investments have returned valuable dividends for our national security and foreign relations; engendered significant new high technologies; fostered advances in medicine; enriched the cultural fabric; inspired the youngest Americans and demonstrated to them the value of education, especially the merits of science and math.

But these benefits quickly fade when our exploratory goals are distant and unclear.

Almost nine months ago, Congress and the White House reached a compromise with enactment of the NASA Authorization Act of 2010, a first step in establishing a path forward. The legislation calls on NASA to develop a new Space Launch System (heavy-lift rocket) and Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (crew capsule, which we now know will be based on Orion), as successors to the shuttle that will be capable of enabling human deep space missions. And, significantly, under NASA’s oversight, the commercial space industry has been tasked with combining lessons learned, innovation and market forces to hasten reliable, low-cost passenger access to Earth orbit.

However, without additional definition in our exploration plans, this legislative guidance is vulnerable, and the risk of failing to advance in each of these arenas carries its own high cost. We need clear, exciting goals and challenging timelines to foster the exploration and development of space. These serve to guide our public/private investments, while providing a critical forcing function that stirs our best minds to find imaginative solutions to daunting obstacles. Compelling milestones offer important accountabilities by which our stakeholders can gauge progress.

The government must embrace the most difficult objectives, leading the way out of Earth orbit by shouldering the high-risk first steps that would test the pocketbooks of even the most visionary investors.

At home, we need a capable industrial base. Our policy makers must be attuned to the ongoing need for skilled managers, engineers, scientists and technicians.

The commercial sectors need new opportunity and a level playing field to thrive and compete in their roles as government contractors and service providers.

When we achieve new milestones, our framework must be quick to identify opportunities for the private sector to take on the day-to-day activities and free government-led initiatives to take the next bold step.

The Coalition — and we believe other organizations that share our resolve, passion and commitment — stands ready as a partner in this great endeavor to foster public understanding and appreciation for the significance of a far-reaching framework, sustained political support and committed resources to underwrite a bold new chapter in the exploration of space.


Glenn Mahone is chairman of the Coalition for Space Exploration.