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Put space policy on the presidential to-do list

The top space policy task awaiting the man who occupies the White House in the 20-teens is to get NASA's astronauts back on U.S.-made spaceships. First of a five-part series by NBC News' Jay Barbree.
Image: Dragon under development
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.SpaceX via NASA

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.

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' 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 published by Open Road Integrated Media, is available from , , ,   and .