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As Shuttle Ends, Space Program Needs a New Beginning

July 19, 2011 - 6:00pm

The end is near. The last space shuttle mission soon will be completed. Unfortunately, because of a lack of vision and leadership in Washington, we may be seeing the beginning of the end for our national space program as well.

Last year President Barack Obama came to Florida and announced what he called a bold new vision for our nations space program. While his proposal (which was revised after his initial proposal received significant push-back) saved some of the jobs that will otherwise be lost when the space shuttle is retired, calling his plans for our space program bold, or using the word vision to describe the proposal, is a stretch.

An example of a bold and visionary approach to space took place when John F. Kennedy issued the challenge to safely fly a man to the Moon and back. At the time, we did not have the technology to achieve such a lofty goal -- impossible in the minds of some. However, what President Kennedy understood, and President Obama apparently fails to grasp, is that the mission drives technology development in ways that otherwise would never take place.

There are literally thousands of products we now use every day that were developed as part of the space program. Examples include smoke detectors, hand-held vacuum cleaners, microwaves and water filters. Concentrated baby foods, as well as the freeze-dried instant mixes we feed our children were first consumed by astronauts in space.

Studies have shown that for every dollar spent on space development, $7 has been returned to our economy in the form of a new product or service. Perhaps the biggest impact has been in the area of computers. Fifty years ago a single computer filled an entire room. Space travel required much smaller computers -- which led to the development of the microprocessor or computer chip. These chips are now found in personal computers, cars, ovens, clocks, washing machines, DVD players and many other products. The cost of developing the microprocessor has been far outpaced by the return on that investment.

The exploration of space is not just about the national pride of being first to boldly go where no man has gone before (to quote Capt. James T. Kirk). It is about innovation, product development, job creation, and by the way it can also lead to improving the quality of life for all mankind. To be the world leader in space exploration is to be the leader of the innovation economy. Moreover, control of space is directly linked to national defense in ways we never could have imagined just 25 years ago.

In a time when the federal budget is bursting at the seams, and we suffer from an unsustainable and growing national debt, some will argue that we simply cant afford to explore space. But NASAs budget is one-half of 1 percent of the total budget in Washington, the proverbial drop in the bucket. The Apollo program that took us to the Moon had a total price tag of just over $25 billion. The shuttle program cost about $200 billion. That is nearly 50 years of space exploration with countless economic and social benefits resulting from those efforts. The issue is not money -- its about priorities.

The true cost of Presidents Obamas stimulus package is estimated at over $3 trillion -- as opposed to the official total of $814 billion. The stimulus money has resulted in no significant benefit to the economy -- in fact, economic growth and job creation are flat. The fact is, spending money on space exploration is an investment that has a history of paying back significant financial and social benefits.

We can, and must, reduce the federal budget, significantly reduce the national debt and at the same time maintain a thriving and robust space exploration program. In fact, a failure to get our financial house in order will eliminate our ability to fund a space program, or anything else for that matter. We cant spend our way out of this financial mess. We have to grow the economy and create jobs. Maintaining the worlds premier space exploration program would go a long way in achieving that goal.

Is there a place for the private sector in space exploration? Yes. In fact, Space X has already landed a $1 billion contract from NASA to deliver payloads to the International Space Station. They have had great success in developing their Falcon 9 rocket. But the private sector has its limitations: Try going to a corporate board of directors and telling them that the payoff for an investment in space exploration will come in 25 years. That doesnt work in the world of profit and loss statements.

The next space exploration mission should be a national effort, one directed by NASA on behalf of the American people. NASA has the experience and expertise. If we fail to maintain our position as the leader in space, there are plenty of countries waiting to replace us, including China and Russia. We cannot let that happen.

Today we need a renewed commitment to our nations space exploration program. It is time to give America another challenge, another purpose, a mission with a defined timeline: to Mars by 2020. Americans rise to the occasion every time we are challenged. Now is the time for us to take on the next great challenge in space exploration, not to retreat from our history, our collective accomplishments and our position as the world leader in space. An investment in the space program is an investment in the future of our nation.

This is a guest column by Jeff Kottkamp. He was Floridas 17th lieutenant governor. He served as chairman of Space Florida from 2007-2011 and led the efforts to grow and expand the aerospace industry in Florida.

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