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Three Steps toward the Next Giant Leap

The following keynote address was made in Houston on September 9, 2011, at "Space City 2020”, a day-long workshop that was part of the Rice University NASAversary where representatives of business, government and academia met to discuss strategies for remaining at the forefront of space exploration.

Thank you. It is an honor to be here with you tonight. It is a personal pleasure to be speaking in the presence of Neal Lane and George Abbey, with whom I worked when I was NASA’s Chief Scientist, and my long-standing colleague Pat Reiff.

Congratulations to all of you on 50 years of close collaboration with NASA's Johnson Space Center and Rice University. I also want to congratulate President Leebron for his leadership. With his guidance and the work of your outstanding faculty, Rice is growing in internationalism. David, you and your wife Ping are to be commended for your vision and dedication, as you have become ambassadors for the University all over the world. My husband Chris and I always appreciate your genuine warmth and hospitality when we come to town.

I'd like to share with all of you a true story that I was told by a scientist when I was at NASA Headquarters.

A car carrying a team of American geologists was bumping along a dirt road in the jungles of Central America on their way to a field study. Suddenly, a group of armed and hostile rebels came out of the bushes, stopped the car and demanded identification.

One of the Americans fumbled for his ID and pulled out his NASA badge. The rebel leader looked at it, growled the word "NASA," smiled slightly, and pointed to the sky. He waved the geologists on.

The scientist who told me this story worked at a NASA field center.

This tale demonstrates so well the dramatic imprint that NASA has made on the world – even in the deepest jungles of Central America. I know many of you here have contributed to that influence.

On a September day in 1962, President Kennedy stood in Rice Stadium and declared, "we choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard." NASA and the Johnson Space Center put action to those words and have added both inspiration and benefit to our lives.

The stirring call to new, ambitious goals in space was a response to the nascent Russian space program that had launched the world’s first satellite, Sputnik, in 1957, and first human, Yuri Gagarin, in 1961. We had been beaten on the starting leg of the space race, and reaching the moon first became a matter of national pride.

Kennedy’s speech was given against the backdrop of the Cold War. The emphasis was on competition among nations. He used words like, “The exploration of space is one of the great adventures of all time, and no nation which expects to be the leader of other nations can expect to stay behind in this race for space.” He said, “our leadership in science and in industry, our hopes for peace and security… all require us to become the world’s leading space-faring nation.”

We met his challenge. In 1969 NASA put Neil Armstrong, "Buzz" Aldrin and Mike Collins on a course to the moon with the intention of landing the Eagle and returning all safely to Earth.

Watching Neil Armstrong step onto the lunar surface changed the trajectory of my life. It inspired me to switch careers, earn my doctorate in physics, and eventually work at NASA. Now, as President of Purdue, I lead the institution which calls itself the "Cradle of Astronauts", as 23 Purdue graduates have been chosen to fly in space. Among our Apollo astronaut alumni are Armstrong himself, and Gene Cernan, the most recent man on the moon, as well as Gus Grissom and Roger Chaffee, both of whom perished in a 1967 pre-launch test of Apollo 1.

The space shuttle, launched in 1981, marked our nation’s first space-transportation system. This program spanned three decades and included 135 missions, among them deploying and reservicing the famous Hubble telescope. It carried in stages the largest space station ever constructed, insured it was international in scope with parts contributed by seven countries, and ferried astronauts and cargo to and from it. Shuttle missions also added diversity among the ranks of the astronauts.

The Shuttle program, too, attracted our students; for many of them Neil Armstrong and Gene Cernan were their heroes. In fact, Purdue alumni have flown on 47 space shuttle flights as commanders, pilots, and space-walkers, medical officers and scientists. All have called Houston and the Johnson Space Center home.

Although our astronauts are a source of national pride, they would be the first to acknowledge that the space program was built on the ingenuity and commitment of its countless talented engineers and scientists. Neil Armstrong himself is consistent in crediting the engineers who put him on the moon.

The science mission is one of the true glories of the space program. At universities and laboratories across the nation, we can point to significant discoveries about the cosmos – and about earth, fire and water, as well as new materials – accomplished in space because of the ingenuity of our scientists and their students.

Many of our university faculty members are focused on tomorrow’s breakthroughs in space. For example, at Purdue one faculty member is developing a rocket engine designed for a vehicle to land on the moon. Another leads research focused on the effects of zero-gravity on fluids, which may improve life-support systems. And yet another is working on new types of rocket propellants that could have implications for human space missions.

I know that space science thrives at Rice University, and there are many wonderful technologies being developed through the National Space Biomedical Research Institute, where current and former panel members have flown 71 space missions. For example, your study of the hazards of exposure to lunar dust may result one day in new ways to deliver medicine directly to the lungs in spray form. Also, the integrated LTM/iRevive system, which will be a tool for providing medical care to astronauts through long-duration spaceflights, may ultimately be used in emergency rooms, on the battlefield or at an accident scene.

With the end of the Shuttle program, NASA has opened a new chapter on space exploration. Purdue, like Rice University, is determined to be part of what comes next.

What does come next? That's the question of the day.

The workforce to support the space program is changing dramatically. The dream that once was so focused has become diffused. There are important Earth-bound challenges today that are heralded as the next “Sputnik” challenge.

Recent editorials laud past achievements of the space program, express nostalgia for an exciting era, and anxiety about its future. Several generations of young scientists and engineers were profoundly inspired to reach for the moon, and had dreams of going even further.

I think we will. But we have to recognize, first, that everything has changed. As one columnist recently pointed out, the next 50 years in space will certainly be different from the last 50 years.

We have important steps to take on the way to our next giant leap in space, and they differ in character from the steps we took for our first giant leap. Let’s look to history to devise our first step.

The story of western expansion in our own country is replete with bold, heroic actions, but we have a great nation because we provided - often in fits and starts and at great cost and peril - funding for that expansion. The federal government had a prominent role in funding the expansion, as did private enterprise.

The space program will continue to cost money – lots of money. To be truly effective, to build on our progress, the program will need consistent and sustained financial support.

In a recent "Science Progress" report on U.S. Scientific Research and Development, authors Matthews, Lane and Evans – from your own Baker Institute – indicated: "over the last four decades, federal funding for the physical, mathematical, and engineering sciences has declined by one-half as a percent of GDP … while other countries such as China and Japan have emphasized these fields."

Regrettably, it appears this trend will continue, and NASA will be hit hard. The House Appropriations Committee Report for fiscal year 2012 stated: "NASA needs to develop and pursue new and different ways of operating that will promote efficiency and economy; annual budget increases can no longer be counted on as the means for achieving mission goals."

If the recommendations for the federal budget are approved, total NASA funding would decline nearly 9 percent, and funding for Space Operations would decline more than 25 percent.

It's not all bad news … NASA's aeronautics research would see an increase of nearly 7 percent; and a new category for Space Technology would be created.

We need to be pragmatic about these trends. The shift in our nation's spending away from science and technology – and other nations' corresponding increase in these areas – indicates a global shift in priorities. Global partnerships will be crucial to leveraging the resources and technical capabilities of other nations and making better use of diminished dollars.

We have developed a new international laboratory in space with unique opportunities for its utilization. We know how to screen and train astronauts for the rigors of space habitation and we have learned much about the science of the body and its adaptation to microgravity. We have learned to design sophisticated life-support systems. This knowledge and skill set are valuable for the U.S. commercial industry. NASA can and should be a vital partner in low-cost commercial access to low-Earth orbit.

So that’s the first step: sustaining funding, and making it go further. We need to utilize our large investments in laboratories in space and on the ground because they are unique national assets. We can maximize funding by being good partners, both locally with industry and abroad, with other countries.

Let's move to Step 2.

When one actually looks at what has been accomplished in space – by both robotic and human flight missions – it is awe-inspiring. Yet – with some exceptions like the Hubble – the public is largely unaware of the new knowledge generated by the last 30 years of human space flight.

In a commentary last April Jeff Foust, the editor and publisher of "The Space Review" attributes NASA’s difficulties to three things: the loss of Cold War momentum that fueled the Shuttle and Space Station programs, the national fiscal crisis, and the perceived lack of importance of space policy. He said, “It’s telling that the space-related issue that has attracted the broadest degree of interest among members of Congress is where NASA will transfer the shuttle orbiters upon their retirement.”

Everyone in this room understands the positive effects of discoveries that are translated into commercial products and services. The translational benefits of the space program are legendary: pacemakers for cardiac patients, household smoke detectors, cordless power tools – these innovations and thousands of others can be traced directly to the work of NASA scientists and engineers.

Research in space is addressing, directly or indirectly, many of the world’s grand challenges: climate change, new materials, education, disease, hunger, new energy sources, and systems engineering on a massive scale. It is also answering some of the most profound questions about the cosmos; Witness the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer on the Space Station – delivered on the penultimate Shuttle flight with Purdue astronaut Drew Feustal on board – and its investigations of dark matter and antimatter. This research must be translated and its benefits communicated if we are to re-focus national attention on the space program.

The second step, therefore, is: communicate, communicate, communicate.

Who will conduct the research? Who will make the next giant leap?

This brings us to the third step: inspiring our young people to dream and insuring that they have opportunities for careers in space science, engineering and technology.

Many of the space pioneers, those who came of an age during the height of the "space race,” are retiring or seeking other employment.

We wonder where the talent needed to position us further, faster, and cheaper, in space will come from.

We desire to attract our youth to science, technology, engineering and math – the STEM disciplines – and realize that other nations are simply doing this better. In its report, "Rising Above the Gathering Storm: Revisited," the Academies committee observed that the United States ranks 27th among developed nations in the proportion of college students receiving degrees in science or engineering.

Universities have a special responsibility in this area, but their efforts can be leveraged by national laboratories, like the Johnson Space Center, at which students can intern and, hopefully, find rewarding work.

Early engagement, before college, is equally important. The annual Sally Ride Festival, sponsored by the Rice Space Institute, is an outstanding example of this. As thousands of middle-school girls hear directly from astronauts and learn about space, they also learn what is possible in their own lives.

If the value of the space program can be made clear to our young people, I believe a new generation will be drawn to its portals – and wormholes – and to the greater Houston area where they can be part of a new dream.

That dream should be as bold as the one we were once part of. It should create intense curiosity and encourage the development of entirely new methods of exploration. It is a dream you have already begun – the Mars Exploration Program.

Think about this … Mars is theoretically in the "habitable zone". Under the right conditions long ago, life might have flourished. A combination of robotic and human missions to the planet would provide the inspiration that might attract our young people – and new technologies – to the program.

Today as the Mars Rover named Opportunity looks over the rim of Endeavour one cannot help but wonder if a human being will ever stand where a robot now sits viewing a 14-mile-wide crater, seeking signs of water.

Does it sound unimaginable? To some it might … but then, all bold dreams should inspire a sense of awe.

I was invited by JSC to attend the final Shuttle launch on July 8, to see Atlantis. It was magnificent, as they always have been.

I know the future will bring many more launches, although not all of them will be performed by NASA. I envision rockets carrying pilots, scientists and engineers, cargo, and tourists into space. I imagine that space will open up and that soon low-Earth orbit will have new highways, new stations in the sky, and abundant Earth-viewing opportunities. And I even imagine I might be on one of these flights.

At the same time, I imagine that NASA will have set its sights and its technological goals on higher Earth orbit, and will be encouraging young people to join the effort to develop the materials and tools, propulsions systems and power for long voyages into deeper space.

Fifty years ago, when President Kennedy first challenged our nation to commit itself to space exploration, he warned of the difficulties that lay ahead. Our difficulties today are different in character from the difficulties of the 1960’s, and we are no less committed to meeting them. We have the same passion, the same imagination, the same drive to explore that we had when we made the first giant leap. And we have something more: we have the hard-won experience we’ve gained in space. We’ve been there. As Gene Cernan reminds us, “We can dream the impossible – and make it happen.”

Thank you.