If all goes as planned, Vancouver teacher-astronaut Dottie Metcalf-Lindenburger will be on board Space Shuttle Discovery when it lifts off next March 10. It may be the last time she flies in space because the current shuttle flights end in 2010.
The replacement orbiter, the Constellation, may not fly until 2014 at the earliest.
The problem is federal funding and age. The current fleet of shuttles...Discovery, Endeavor and Atlantis...were built in the 1980s and have flown more than 100 missions. In addition, there is very little money for National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the space program.
In truth, the space program isn't the priority it once was, a fact reflected in its budget. Congress and the President are focused on spending trillions on health care, cap-and-trade, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and federal stimulus.
Why should we care? Because the space program has produced thousands of scientific and medical advancements we use every day. More importantly, the drive to explore the unknown is in our nature and has led to discoveries, experiences and successes we could never have foreseen. Deciding to stop looking at the stars and instead stare at our shoes would be a shame.
The vulnerability of our space program was vividly pointed out recently by two NASA legends.
John Glenn was the first American to orbit the earth in 1962 and returned to space in 1998 aboard Discovery. Elected to the U.S. Senate from Ohio in 1974, he shepherded NASA appropriations through Congress until he retired in 1998.
Glenn fears the $100 billion the United States has invested in the International Space Station may go down the drain because of funding shortages. He believes Congress should add up to $5 billion to keep the shuttle flying and accelerate the replacement orbiter to service the space station.
Glenn's concerns are echoed by former astronaut and New Mexico Sen. Harrison Schmitt, who flew on the 1972 Apollo 17 mission and was one of the last two people to set foot on the moon.
Schmitt believes returning to the moon wouldn't just advance science and raise morale, but it could provide a new energy source. As the only geologist to land on the moon, he believes the lunar Helium-3 he found is a promising potential energy source in the fusion process.
Both former astronauts fear the United States will lose its edge in space to China, India and Russia. While we are cutting back, Russia is forging ahead with its space program. On Sept. 30, U.S. astronaut Jeffrey Williams and Russian cosmonaut Maxim Surayev lifted off from Kazakhstan aboard the Russian Soyuz spaceship en route to the space station. Also on board, Canadian billionaire Guy Laliberte, who reportedly paid $35 million to be a space tourist.
Schmitt believes if we don't have an orbiter to service the space station, Russia will inherit control of it. Glenn points out that completing the space station is only the start of its mission. The subsequent experimentation is what will pay dividends for our country and people around the world. However, maintaining America's commitment to the space station will require political and financial backing from our nation's leaders.
Schmitt says one of the most important ingredients of NASA's success has been the generations of bright, young Americans who worked on the space program - which brings us back to Washington's astronaut/teacher Dottie Metcalf-Lindenburger.
The Hudson Bay High School science teacher has been in the space program since 2004 It took her six years of work at the Johnson Space Center to prepare for next March's launch. If President Obama and Congress fail to extend the life of Discovery, Endeavor and Atlantis or dilly-dally around with the funding of the Constellation, what happens to the bright, young generations of American astronauts Schmitt describes?
Just as important, what happens to us?
- Don C. Brunell is president of the Association of Washington Business (www.awb.org).