Image: Atlantis moved into VAB
Jim Grossmann / NASA file
Technicians accompany space shuttle Atlantis as it is towed into the Vehicle Assembly Building at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida in late June. Atlantis, the last space shuttle to fly in space, is being prepared for its handover to the space center's visitor complex as a museum piece.
By Correspondent
NBC News
updated 7/17/2012 1:10:40 PM ET 2012-07-17T17:10:40
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.

In the beginning, it was said that all NASA Administrator James Webb had to do was take a couple of buckets up to the Hill, and Congress would fill them with money.

It certainly is not that easy today. The country cannot afford waste. A prudent NASA should take advantage of the $6.6 billion worth of spaceport facilities and flight hardware that it bought and paid for — facilities that are now growing grass in the Florida sun. 

NASA should be doing everything possible to launch American astronauts from their own Cape Canaveral pads.

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Instead, the agency is doing everything but. It’s been drifting, delaying and courting upstart aerospace companies to build what’s already been built, ignoring the days when America was clearly No. 1.

In the 1960s, the Cape, as it was simply called, was a sprawling gateway to the future.  It was the most vital and intensely exciting place on the planet, a 15,000-acre sandspit that had been reshaped into a port of blinding searchlights surrounding active launch pads.  It was a place where rows of rocket gantries and blockhouses and hangars and office buildings were lined up neatly behind a centuries-old lighthouse.

Only days after Alan Shepard became the first American in space in 1961, President John F. Kennedy decided that if America was to wrest the lead in space from the Russians, we would have to beat them in a race for national prestige to the moon. And if we were to do it, rocket scientist Wernher von Braun said, “We need a larger spaceport.”

Two launch pads for the Saturn 5 moon rockets were built on the northern leg of Cape Canaveral — extending the country’s famed rocket row. The government purchased 88,000 acres of land next door, on Merritt Island, for operational structures and safety zones.

The largest building east of the Mississippi River was built to assemble the huge rockets, and a wide and deep “crawler way” was dredged and filled to form a path from that Vehicle Assembly Building to the pads.  After JFK was felled by an assassin's bullet, NASA named its sprawling new creation the Kennedy Space Center.

Within a period of four years, 24 Americans sailed through the vacuum from Earth to the moon. Some of them flew twice. Twelve out of those 24 rode their landers down to the lunar surface, walked and drove through the dust and rocks of the small world.

Had Russia sustained its early lead in power and technology, the number of humans going to the moon might have increased greatly.  It was a fierce competition, and the Russians went all-out in their desperate attempt to lead the human race to another world.  But after they reached Earth orbit, the Russians went through a series of devastating rocket explosions and costly failures.

Slow slide for spaceport
For the next four decades, America was the unquestioned leader in space.  Taxpayers invested $1 billion in 1960s dollars ($6.6 billion in 2012 dollars) to build their country’s sprawling launch and landing facilities. But when the space shuttles were grounded for good, that spaceport began a slow slide back to seed.

NASA went with a different strategy to keep the International Space Station in business: Turn America’s space program over to a patchwork of private companies. Short-change America’s great rocket and spacecraft facilities. Ask the taxpayers and private businesses to rebuild it all again in California, Texas and Colorado in the name of commercialization.

When President George W. Bush decided to bring the space shuttle program to an end, on the advice of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board, he put in place Project Constellation.

Constellation would have given America two sets of rockets with emergency abort systems to save its crews. The smaller one was called Ares 1. It took the most successful rocket in history, the solid rocket booster used by the space shuttles, and married it to a Boeing second stage with a human-rated J-2X engine. Engineers modified a corner of Kennedy Space Center’s giant assembly building for stacking the new creation and outfitted Launch Complex 39B to launch the Ares 1-X.

The early version lifted off in October 2009.  It worked as advertised.  But despite that successful flight, and the fact that Ares 1 offered the shortest and least costly route to keep American astronauts flying from America’s paid-for $6.6 billion master spaceport, it was canceled.

Hits and misses
Those speaking for the Obama administration like to point out that George W. Bush made the decision to cancel the space shuttle program. He did, but he left Constellation in place.  President Obama canceled Constellation, putting thousands of the best engineering and technical minds out of work. Most are still searching for a job today.

If NASA had given Ares 1 the attention and budget it deserved from the very beginning, the replacement rocket for the space shuttles could have been well on its way to flying astronauts to and from the space station, depending on spacecraft readiness.

But instead of following the course offered by Ares 1, NASA paralyzed itself with indecision. The agency ridded itself of experienced workers, hardware and facilities, replacing them with a patchwork of commercial facilities and rockets.

Only one of those commercial companies has gotten off the ground so far: California-based SpaceX, which was started up in 2002 with $100 million from its millionaire founder, Elon Musk. Since its founding, SpaceX has received $773 million from NASA.

On May 22 — 32 months later than originally planned — SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket launched an unmanned Dragon capsule from the Cape to the International Space Station. During a virtually flawless mission, the Dragon was brought in for a berthing with the station, delivering a half-ton of supplies.

The capsule closed out its mission by parachuting into the Pacific, 500 miles off Mexico’s Baja California, bringing more than half a ton of space station hardware and experiments back down to Earth. It was the first time NASA had received a large load from the station since the space shuttles stopped flying.

The flight was called a first for a private company, but it certainly wasn’t a first for spaceflight.

Thirty-five years ago, on Jan. 22, 1978, Russia’s unmanned cargo space freighter Progress-1 automatically docked with the Salyut 6 space station, delivering 5,000 pounds of supplies.   Since then, hundreds of unmanned automated dockings have taken place in space, but the feat by the private company SpaceX represented NASA’s future of reinventing the wheel.

Ready to fly
President Barack Obama's plan calls for turning over space deliveries in low Earth orbit to private businesses, so NASA can build the heavy-lift rockets and advanced spacecraft needed to send Americans into deep space.

Most space experts, even most of the plan's critics, would say there's nothing wrong with that. Mr. President, now you just need to select truly ready-to-fly rockets and spacecraft.  One hiccup with Russia’s Soyuz, as John Glenn says, and the International Space Station could be out of business. America would then stand silly before the world, with egg on its face.

What’s done is done, and after drifting across an indecisive sea, we can wait no longer for novices to build a space program from scratch. We already have the best flight hardware out there. We must put these veteran rockets on our launch pads and fly.

Only last week, Pakistani Prime Minister Raja Pervaiz Ashraf issued a message of greeting and felicitation to his Chinese counterpart, Wen Jiaboa, on the occasion of the successful launch of the Shenzhou 9 spacecraft. Ashraf said Pakistan desired to enhance its cooperation with China in the field of space technology.

“We are thankful to China for helping us build and launch the Paksat-IR satellite, and hopefully, with your support we would be able to launch a Pakistan remote sensing satellite soon,” he said.

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

Only Russia and China launching astronauts?

India and Pakistan scrambling to get on board?

The United States self-grounded, despite rockets and spacecraft ready to fly for less money than NASA is paying Russia?

What else is needed other than our own flight hardware again?

The word is decision.

Just make it.

'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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