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CHARLES WALKER: Space exploration is a necessity

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Washington, May 7, 2014 | comments
With our economy stuck in a slow recovery, voters want leaders in Washington to create high tech jobs, support new technologies for American industry and help inspire the next generation of scientists, engineers and innovators that will grow our economy for the future. It's a tall order, but I'm glad to see congressional representatives from Mississippi are meeting this challenge, in part by supporting NASA missions to explore deep space.

In a recent letter he co-authored with 31 other members of the House, Rep. Steven Palazzo, R-Miss. -- chairman of the House Space Subcommittee -- urged the White House to put a greater emphasis on efforts to send American astronauts to explore space beyond earth's orbit. Deep space missions would restore America's forward-leaning space leadership in a way not seen since the Apollo program that landed us on the moon and generated thousands of technology spinoffs -- like the integrated circuit. This is a great challenge our country and our economy needs. While developing countries like China are trying to catch us in space with missions to earth orbit and the moon, we should continue our leadership by reaching past them to Mars and beyond.

NASA is already building the systems we need. Contractors have started construction of the most powerful rocket in history, the Space Launch System (SLS), which will be capable of sending nine school buses worth of cargo beyond earth's orbit. Later this year, NASA will test a prototype of the manned Orion space capsule that would ride atop the SLS. And NASA scientists are working on the tough challenges posed by deep space missions that could last years, like how to shield astronauts from deep space radiation and maintain efficient life support.

NASA's deep space efforts complement the flurry of activity by private companies to reach the International Space Station. As the first astronaut to fly with NASA on behalf of a commercial space company, I've seen how a smart division between NASA and the private sector can drive costs down for profitable missions, leaving NASA with more money to pursue greater space exploration. As commercial space companies make it cheaper and more efficient to send astronauts to the ISS, NASA should be allocating more funding to new technologies that will send astronauts into deep space.

Exploring deep space will unlock incredible rewards for science and our economy. Designing and building deep space technologies will create thousands of jobs and generate lucrative commercial spinoffs that drive our economy -- like GPS, cell phone cameras, and medical technologies like in-ear thermometers -- just like every prior phase of our space program from Apollo to the Shuttle. In 2011 alone, NASA invested roughly $240 million in Mississippi, driving critical economic growth.

These missions will also uncover new clues about the beginnings of the universe and how our solar system evolved. The discoveries we make will, in turn, inspire the next generation of American scientists and engineers so we continue to lead in space for decades to come.

Some argue that space exploration is a luxury we can't afford. But if we want to continue America's global economic leadership, I'd say it's a necessity, not a luxury. Investing in NASA generates enormous returns -- upwards of $10 in lucrative spinoffs for each dollar spent in R&D -- at very little cost. The entire NASA budget is less than half a penny out of each taxpayer dollar. And deep space missions would not break our budget. To put them in perspective, we spend as much to maintain empty government buildings every two years as it would cost to build the SLS and Orion capsule needed to reach Mars.

Sending American astronauts into deep space could become the defining technology challenge of this generation. NASA is ready to meet that challenge -- all it needs is unified support from Washington and clear direction on specific goals. I stand with Rep. Palazzo in calling on President Obama and others in Congress to support NASA's human exploration into deep space by fully funding the SLS, Orion space capsule and other critical deep space technologies.

Charles Walker, an engineer who flew on three Shuttle missions on behalf of McDonnell Douglas in the 1980s, was the first non-governmental astronaut in space. Email:

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