Image: Dragon under development
SpaceX via NASA
NASA astronaut Rex Walheim looks through the hatch of SpaceX's Dragon capsule at the company's headquarters in Hawthorne, Calif. The Dragon is one of several U.S.-made spaceships being developed to carry astronauts to the International Space Station in the 20-teens.
By Correspondent
NBC News
updated 7/16/2012 11:13:57 AM ET 2012-07-16T15:13:57
Commentary

In a five-part series, NBC News' Jay Barbree lays out a vision of spaceflight in the 20-teens for the 2012 presidential candidates.

With the lack of jobs and the shape of America’s economy today, I'm sure space exploration isn't on top of the must-do list for President Barack Obama and his Republican challenger, Mitt Romney.

When asked if we should spend tax dollars to go to the moon, the great Walter Cronkite used to say, "We can’t spend a dime on the moon, son.  There’s not even a McDonald’s up there."

Cronkite’s little joke was his way of pointing out that every dollar NASA spent went to creating jobs and long-lasting institutions on Earth. The reward was the learning. Today, experts say the United States is years ahead of where it would have been in science and technology had it not led in space.

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Looking to the future, President Barack Obama wants private aerospace companies to fly Americans on routine trips to Earth orbit. Meanwhile, NASA will focus its talents on deep-space missions, sending astronauts to where they have never been.

Most space veterans agree with those goals, Mr. President, but with a cautionary note: Don't prop up the newcomers while giving short shrift to America's most experienced aerospace companies. This happened before, when the White House took the contract from the experienced and gave it to the inexperienced. In 1967, the Apollo 1 astronauts paid with their lives in a launch-pad fire.

Forty-five years later, one of the relative newcomers to the space business, SpaceX, is receiving roughly three-quarters of a billion dollars from NASA — while one of the shuttle program's longtime contractors, ATK, is still trying to get in on the funding for space station resupply.

Forget the suits
Governor Romney, you say, "America must once again lead the world in space.  We need to bring together government, research institutions, and the private sector to establish a clear mission for our national space program."

Governor, the truth is that NASA needs to use the spaceflight hardware and facilities it already owns, and spend only what taxpayers can afford.  If it did, America could once again lead the world in space. Take it from a reporter who has covered NASA for every day of its five decades in existence: America’s space program does not need another busload of suits with untanned faces stabbing holes in the air, debating over things about which they know little.

For example, NASA has been lectured tirelessly on the reasons why astronauts need not return to the lunar surface. "We've been there before," the current president once said.

"I find that mystifying," says Neil Armstrong, the first human to walk on the moon."It would be as if 16th-century monarchs proclaimed that 'we need not to go to the New World, we have already been there.' Or as if President Thomas Jefferson announced in 1808 that Americans 'need not go west of the Mississippi, the Lewis and Clark expedition has already been there.'"

The important thing is to get America back to blazing a trail on the space frontier, just as Lewis and Clark blazed a trail through the American West more than two centuries ago.

Get America back in space
Right now, that's impossible: Russia and China are the only nations on Earth flying humans into outer space. Since the grounding of the space shuttles, the United States, the former world leader in space, hasn’t had a single rocket or spaceship it can call its own.  Instead, NASA pays Russia a tad under $60 million per seat to fly its astronauts.

American companies say they can do it for less, using spacecraft such as ATK’s Liberty launch system, United Launch Alliance's Atlas 5 rocket, Boeing's CST-100 capsule, Sierra Nevada's Dream Chaser space plane, Blue Origin's Orbital Space Vehicle, or SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon capsule. Before the next four-year term is over, some of these vehicles could be flying our own astronauts to and from the International Space Station.

As space legend John Glenn, the first American Earth orbit, says, "It galls me Americans today can only reach space aboard a Russian ship.  If Soyuz had a hiccup, our manned space program would be ended for years."

For years, America's space agency has been living on a tight budget. The United States spends less than a half a percent of the federal budget on NASA. Meanwhile, the list of benefits from space exploration is staggering.

America’s space program has developed technologies that are being used in devices to detect blocked coronary arteries to prevent heart attacks, as well as in digital systems for medical imaging, laser angioplasty, programmable pacemakers, implantable heart aids, automatic insulin pumps, voice-controlled wheelchairs and invisible braces. In transportation, spaceflight has brought us better brakes, safer bridges and electric cars. In public safety, the benefits from NASA include radiation hazard detectors, emergency response robots, pen-sized personal alarm systems, life-saving air tanks for firemen and emergency rescuers. Let's not forget the hundreds of computer technology benefits found in smartphones and other devices. The spin-offs extend to recreational gear, food packaging, environmental and resource management, industrial productivity and manufacturing technology. Frankly, it's a never-ending list.

Look beyond dollars and cents
If NASA would use what works and what it has already paid for, the space agency could be even more frugal. But living our life is not all about money, jobs and benefits. It’s about each human filling his or her destiny, placing another chip on history's accumulated heap of knowledge.

We inhabit a stirring, surging, moving, living planet.  It is our spaceship Earth, where we see the beginning of life, its present and its end. Our spaceship’s bounty, however, is finite. Its supply of energy, foodstuffs, clean atmosphere and pristine waters will one day be depleted.

Astronomers are now identifying new planets on an almost weekly basis. Some are within reach of future rockets, though it may take generations to get there. Millions or billions of years from now, these new Earths might be needed when our planet’s wells run dry, its fields turn to dust, and our agitated sun turns it to a cinder.

President Obama, Governor Romney: One of you will be entrusted with the power of the White House for the next four years. May I suggest that you heed the words written more than a century ago by a Russian teacher of science, Konstantin Tsiolkovsky.   He was the first known human to envision and draw up concepts for the use of rockets in space travel.  In a simple but wonderfully elegant turn of words, Tsiolkovsky surveyed the future and saw what the human race must do, and where it must go.

Image: Barbree coverage
NBC News
NBC News' Jay Barbree covers the last space shuttle launch in July 2011.

"Earth is the cradle," he wrote, "but one cannot live in the cradle forever."

Thankfully, there are those today who still hear the words of Tsiolkovsky.

"The American people need a philosophy and goals," says Gene McCall, retired chief scientist for the Air Force’s Space Command, and a fellow and senior scientist at the Los Alamos National Laboratory.

"Exploration of space is an exciting adventure in which all Americans can participate," he adds.  "It stimulates our imagination and establishes new expectations for our civilization, in addition to developing new technologies that can improve our lives on Earth.

"We explore space," McCall says, "because we know it is the right thing to do."

'Spaceflight in the 20-teens':

Cape Canaveral correspondent Jay Barbree is in his 55th year with NBC News. Barbree wrote the New York Times best-seller "Moon Shot" with Alan Shepard, and was a finalist to be the first journalist in space. His space team received an Emmy for broadcasting the Apollo 11 moon landing in 1969.  Barbree broke the news about the cause of the 1986 Challenger shuttle accident on NBC Nightly News and is a recipient of NASA’s highest medal for public service. An updated version of "Moon Shot: The Inside Story of America's Apollo Moon Landings," published by Open Road Integrated Media, is available from Apple iBookstore, BarnesandNoble.com, Amazon.com, Sony Reader Store  and Kobo Books.

© 2013 NBCNews.com  Reprints

Explainer: Out-of-this-world destinations

  • NASA

    We are headed to Mars ... eventually. But first we need the rocket technology and human spaceflight savvy to get us there safely and efficiently. And the best way to do that is to visit places such as asteroids, our moon, a Martian moon and even no man's lands in space called "Lagrange points," NASA administrator Charles Bolden explained during the unveiling of the agency's revised vision for space exploration.

    The vision shifts focus away from a return to the moon as part of a steppingstone to Mars in favor of what experts call a "flexible path" to space exploration, pushing humans ever deeper into the cosmos.

    Click the "Next" label to check out six other potential destinations astronauts may visit in the years and decades to come en route to Mars.

    — John Roach, msnbc.com contributor

  • Lessons to learn on the space station

    NASA

    The cooperation required to build and maintain the International Space Station will be a key to propelling humans on to Mars, according to Louis Friedman, co-founder of The Planetary Society. The society is a space advocacy organization that supports the flexible path to space exploration. In fact, the space station itself could be a training ground for Mars-bound astronauts.

    Astronauts can spend ever longer blocks of time on the station to gain experience in long-duration flights, for example. They could also practice extravehicular activities akin to those expected on a Mars mission, Friedman noted.

  • Lunar orbit, a test of new technology

    NASA

    Lunar orbit, too, is a familiar destination for human spaceflight, but a return to the familiar with new technology would allow astronauts to test the engineering of systems designed to go deeper into space, according to Friedman.

    A return to the moon is still in the cards on the flexible path, but going to lunar orbit first defers the cost of developing the landing and surface systems needed to get in and out of the lunar gravity well, according to experts.

    The famous "Earthrise" image shown here was made in 1968 during Apollo 8, the first human voyage to orbit the moon.

  • Stable no man's lands in space

    NASA / WMAP Science Team

    There are places in space where the gravitational pulls of Earth and the moon, or Earth and the sun, have a balancing effect on a third body in orbit. Those five locations, known as Lagrange points, could offer relatively stable parking spots for astronomical facilities such as space telescopes or satellites. Human spaceflights to these points would allow astronauts to service these instruments.

    In addition, space experts believe a trip to a Lagrange point could serve as a training mission for astronauts headed to points deeper in space, such as an asteroid. Nevertheless, reaching a Lagrange point would be more of a technical achievement than a scientific achievement, according to Friedman. "It is an empty spot in space," he said.

  • Visit an asteroid near you?

    Image: Paraffin candles
    Dan Durda  /  FIAAA

    The first stop astronauts may make in interplanetary space is one of the asteroids that cross near Earth's orbit. Scientists have a keen interest in the space rocks because of the threat that one of them could strike Earth with devastating consequences. An asteroid mission would allow scientists to better understand what makes the rocks tick, and thus how to best divert one that threatens to smack our planet.

    Humans have also never been to an asteroid, which would make such a visit an exciting first, noted Friedman. "Imagine how interesting it will be to see an astronaut step out of a spacecraft and down onto an asteroid and perform scientific experiments," he said. What's more, since asteroids have almost no gravity, an asteroid encounter would be like docking with the space station, which doesn't require a heavy-lift rocket for the return. That makes an asteroid a potentially less expensive destination than the surface of the moon.

  • Back to the moon?

    NASA via Getty Images

    The moon-Mars path of human space exploration originally envisioned the moon as a training ground for a mission to the Red Planet. While the flexible-path strategy broadens the training field, the moon remains a candidate destination, according to NASA.

    Several other nations also have the moon's surface in their sights, including Japan, India and China. Some experts fear the dedicated lunar programs of these nations will eventually leave the United States in the dust as it focuses on an ambiguous flexible path.

    Friedman, of The Planetary Society, said NASA should support the lunar programs of Japan, India and China as part of team building for an international Mars mission, but sees no reason for NASA to focus on the moon. "We've done that already and that was Apollo," he said.

  • Martian moon a final pit stop?

    NASA / JPL-Caltech / UA

    Before astronauts go all the way to Mars, there's reason to make a final stop at one of its moons, Phobos or Deimos. The two moons are less than 20 miles across at their widest, which means landing on them would be less expensive than the Red Planet itself.

    Friedman used to consider a mission to a Martian moon nonsensical - akin to going to the base camp of Mount Everest instead of going to the top of the mountain. "I've now turned myself around on that, because you do go to the base camp and you do actually conduct training activities there before you attempt the summit," he said.

    "By all means go there," he added. "Test out your rendezvous and docking at Mars, conduct your three-year, round-trip mission, maybe tele-operate some rovers of the surface (of Mars). That will all be interesting and then the next mission will finally go down to the surface."

Photos: Month in Space: January 2014

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  1. Southern stargazing

    Stars, galaxies and nebulas dot the skies over the European Southern Observatory's La Silla Paranal Observatory in Chile, in a picture released on Jan. 7. This image also shows three of the four movable units that feed light into the Very Large Telescope Interferometer, the world's most advanced optical instrument. Combining to form one larger telescope, they are greater than the sum of their parts: They reveal details that would otherwise be visible only through a telescope as large as the distance between them. (Y. Beletsky / ESO) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. A balloon's view

    Cameras captured the Grandville High School RoboDawgs' balloon floating through Earth's upper atmosphere during its ascent on Dec. 28, 2013. The Grandville RoboDawgs’ first winter balloon launch reached an estimated altitude of 130,000 feet, or about 25 miles, according to coaches Mike Evele and Doug Hepfer. It skyrocketed past the team’s previous 100,000-feet record set in June. The RoboDawgs started with just one robotics team in 1998, but they've grown to support more than 30 teams at public schools in Grandville, Mich. (Kyle Moroney / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Spacemen at work

    Russian cosmonauts Oleg Kotov, right, and Sergey Ryazanskiy perform maintenance on the International Space Station on Jan. 27. During the six-hour, eight-minute spacewalk, Kotov and Ryazanskiy completed the installation of a pair of high-fidelity cameras that experienced connectivity issues during a Dec. 27 spacewalk. The cosmonauts also retrieved scientific gear outside the station's Russian segment. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Special delivery

    The International Space Station's Canadian-built robotic arm moves toward Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Cygnus autonomous cargo craft as it approaches the station for a Jan. 12 delivery. The mountains below are the southwestern Alps. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Accidental art

    A piece of art? A time-lapse photo? A flickering light show? At first glance, this image looks nothing like the images we're used to seeing from the Hubble Space Telescope. But it's a genuine Hubble frame that was released on Jan. 27. Hubble's team suspects that the telescope's Fine Guidance System locked onto a bad guide star, potentially a double star or binary. This caused an error in the tracking system, resulting in a remarkable picture of brightly colored stellar streaks. The prominent red streaks are from stars in the globular cluster NGC 288. (NASA / ESA) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Supersonic test flight

    A camera looking back over Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo's fuselage shows the rocket burn with a Mojave Desert vista in the background during a test flight of the rocket plane on Jan. 10. Cameras were mounted on the exterior of SpaceShipTwo as well as its carrier airplane, WhiteKnightTwo, to monitor the rocket engine's performance. The test was aimed at setting the stage for honest-to-goodness flights into outer space later this year, and eventual commercial space tours.

    More about SpaceShipTwo on PhotoBlog (Virgin Galactic) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Red lagoon

    The VLT Survey Telescope at the European Southern Observatory's Paranal Observatory in Chile captured this richly detailed new image of the Lagoon Nebula, released on Jan. 22. This giant cloud of gas and dust is creating intensely bright young stars, and is home to young stellar clusters. This image is a tiny part of just one of 11 public surveys of the sky now in progress using ESO telescopes. (ESO/VPHAS team) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Fire on the mountain

    This image provided by NASA shows a satellite view of smoke from the Colby Fire, taken by the Multi-angle Imaging SpectroRadiometer aboard NASA's Terra spacecraft as it passed over Southern California on Jan. 16. The fire burned more than 1,863 acres and forced the evacuation of 3,700 people. (NASA via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Where stars are born

    An image captured by NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope shows the Orion Nebula, an immense stellar nursery some 1,500 light-years away. This false-color infrared view, released on Jan. 15, spans about 40 light-years across the region. The brightest portion of the nebula is centered on Orion's young, massive, hot stars, known as the Trapezium Cluster. But Spitzer also can detect stars still in the process of formation, seen here in red hues. (NASA / JPL-Caltech) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Cygnus takes flight

    Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Antares rocket rises from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island, Va, on Jan. 9. The rocket sent Orbital's Cygnus cargo capsule on its first official resupply mission to the International Space Station. (Chris Perry / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. A long, long time ago...

    This long-exposure picture from the Hubble Space Telescope, released Jan. 8, is the deepest image ever made of any cluster of galaxies. The cluster known as Abell 2744 appears in the foreground. It contains several hundred galaxies as they looked 3.5 billion years ago. Abell 2744 acts as a gravitational lens to warp space, brightening and magnifying images of nearly 3,000 distant background galaxies. The more distant galaxies appear as they did more than 12 billion years ago, not long after the Big Bang. (NASA / NASA via AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Frosty halo

    Sun dogs are bright spots that appear in the sky around the sun when light is refracted through ice crystals in the atmosphere. These sun dogs appeared on Jan. 5 amid brutally cold temperatures along Highway 83, north of Bismarck, N.D. The temperature was about 22 degrees below zero Fahrenheit, with a 50-below-zero wind chill.

    Slideshow: The Year in Space (Brian Peterson / The Bismarck Tribune via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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