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After space shuttle program, NASA's future still bright

With the final flight of the stalwart space shuttle Atlantis just a few days away, America is beginning an exciting new chapter in human space exploration. This chapter centers on full utilization of the International Space Station, development of multiple, made-in-America capabilities for astronauts and cargo to reach low-Earth orbit, and pursuit of two critical building blocks for our nation's exploration future: a deep space crew vehicle and an evolvable, heavy-lift rocket. Today, we embark on a new knowledge and innovation-driven approach to space science and exploration that will lead us into the new frontiers of deep space. Critical to this new chapter in human space exploration are continued investments in science and technology that will ensure our nation's prosperity in the 21st century.

The technology used to develop the space shuttle, which first flew more than three decades ago, was the most advanced and cutting-edge in the world at the time. This remarkable vehicle has provided a means for extraordinary accomplishments and discoveries for 30 years. The Baltimore-operated Hubble Space Telescope, which has transformed our understanding of the universe, was deployed by the shuttle and serviced four times by shuttle-ferried astronauts. A one-of-a-kind, three-dimensional map of 90 percent of the Earth's surface was made using a spaceborne pair of radars mounted on a 198-foot boom extending from the shuttle's cargo bay. Most notably, America and its international partners have constructed the most sophisticated scientific laboratory ever — a football-field-sized research facility in space — using the space shuttle as our construction workhorse. Because of our nation's up-front investments in science and technology, the shuttle's legacy will continue with the remarkable research that is yet to come from the International Space Station.

Consider, for a moment, the efficiency gains in radiation shielding and highly reliable life-support systems that may become possible from improved knowledge of human adaptability to the space environment, gained through scientific experiments on the space station. Consider how the architectural options for human exploration of our solar system will change when reliable commercial access to low-Earth orbit, propellant depots, inflatable habitats and advanced in-space propulsion technologies are available.

It is in the human DNA to seek to survive, thrive, and explore. America's investments in space exploration, science and technology fuel discovery, allowing us to answer questions rooted at the very core of the human spirit. What child has not gazed at the stars and planets in absolute wonder, or imagined what it would be like to live on another planet? Whether life exists beyond our own Earth? What will become of our home, the Earth, over time? NASA has been seeking and finding answers to these questions since its creation, and it will continue to do so for years to come.

While some of NASA's most visible achievements have been in the area of human spaceflight, its achievements in the realms of science and technology have been similarly amazing. Through space-based research, we have discovered water on Mars and methane lakes on Saturn's moon, Titan. We have uncovered more than a thousand planets, some of which are potentially suitable for life, and revealed mysterious forces pushing the universe outward at an accelerating rate. We are learning about the surprising behavior of nature through our observations of the Earth from space. And in the period between June and December of this year, we will have deployed scientific missions to explore the interior of the moon, the surface of Mars, the asteroid Vesta, the giant planet Jupiter, and the complex climate of our very own home planet.

These grand scientific investigations of our universe are fueled by some of the very same technologies needed to extend human presence into deep space. At NASA, exploration, science and technology are truly interconnected. Investments in technology are required to enable NASA's future science and exploration missions, which are bold in stature and grand in scope. And these same missions drive and sharpen NASA's technology investment portfolio.

Advancement of cutting-edge technologies and capabilities is critical for NASA's future, our nation's future in space, and our technological leadership position in the world. The economic competitiveness, national security, and humanitarian and societal benefits gained from federal investment in research, technology and innovation are well documented. NASA has delivered on these investments since its creation and has inspired countless young people into educational and career paths in science, technology engineering and mathematics — skills critically needed for America to lead in the future.

The 21st century will be won by those who innovate, seek scientific breakthroughs and develop new technologies. NASA is a place that stirs American innovation, a place where America continues to reach for new heights and push the frontiers of science and technology.

By continuing to take on grand challenges in human spaceflight and science, NASA will catalyze America's innovation engine and play a significant role in America's economic recovery. By taking humans to places never before visited, by developing technologies that will serve society in broad ways, some that we cannot yet anticipate, and by empowering us to understand our world, our solar system, and our place in the universe, NASA will continue to serve our nation well into the future.

The future is waiting; it's time to claim it.

Waleed Abdalati is NASA's chief scientist. His email is waleed.abdalati@nasa.gov. Robert Braun is NASA's chief technologist. His email is bobby.braun@nasa.gov.

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