Space: Exploring the Frontier

  Space. The word evokes a response from just about every person. For most, the immediate thought heads the great expanse just beyond Earth’s atmosphere, where possibilities are literally infinite. The outer depths have long held sway over humanity, whose desire to understand, explain and explore the stars seems almost intrinsic in our DNA.

Silhoutter of Space Shuttle Endeavour on mission STS-130 - NASA

   Only 530 people have achieved spaceflight farther than 62 miles, and only 12 have walked the surface of the moon. The resolute push to discover what lies beyond the sky has led to glory, breakthrough and tragedy, and yet the understanding is just beginning. The American pioneer spirit, a Manifest Destiny that stretches far beyond the Pacific, has taken shape in NASA's Mercury, Gemini, Apollo and the Space Shuttle Programs, rocketing people beyond the grasp of Earth’s pull.

   The more we discover, the more we explored, the tighter the global community seems to become. The Hubble Space Telescope continues to peer deep into the universe, opening the door not just to scientific study but also the imagination. The Curiosity Mars Rover, toiling along the red planet, has been piping back information confirming long-thought theories about the deserted planet. And the International Space Station, careening around low Earth orbit at a speed of about 17,200 miles per hour, has become a symbol of international cooperation as well as the home of potential medical and scientific breakthroughs. But in terms of vastness, if space truly is the final frontier, we as a species have not even left the driveway on this journey.

Astronaut Charles Duke, Jr. on the surface of the moon - Apollo 16 - NASA

   Spurred by this desire to know more, caught up with CNN space correspondent John Zarrella, a veteran reporter who has covered the space industry for more than 30 years. He recently led a panel discussion with five American astronauts Scott Carpenter, David Scott, Edgar Mitchell, Charles Duke and Robert Crippen, centered on these men’s extraordinary careers and the importance of space exploration for humanity at large. Their exploits begin with the first manned space missions (Carpenter with Project Mercury), travel to the surface of the moon (Scott—Gemini 8, Apollo 9 and 15; Mitchell—Apollo 14; and Duke—Apollo 16), and tap into pioneering the Space Shuttle Program (Crippen, who captained STS-1, STS-7, STS-41-C and STS-41-G for a total of 23 days, 13 hours and 46 minutes in space).

Earth and the moon - NASA  Here, Zarrella shares with us the insights he has gained over his carreer coverign the space industry.


NI.COM: What are you interested in when speaking with men like the five astronauts?

ZARRELLA: I think the most important thing that they can get across is to try and relate why space exploration is important, why pushing outward is important—not only to the nation but civilization in and of itself. Why do we need to go out there?

   I think they all believed that we would be further along in space exploration than we are now. Certainly when you talk to the Apollo astronauts, they were quite convinced the next step was going to be Mars after the moon, but then suddenly it all stopped and NASA decided to build a space shuttle instead. Most of the Apollo astronauts that I have spoken to over the years have always expressed regret that we didn’t push the envelope further outward as opposed to strictly going to near orbit with the space shuttle.

Space Shuttle Discovery - Astronaut Piers J. Sellers, STS-121 specialist on a extravehicular activity - NASA

How has the evolution of the space industry changed over your career?

Oh my gosh, well the most obvious of course is that the Shuttle Program is no more and NASA is in the process of launching the new heavy-lift rocket Space Launch System (SLS). People tend to think of it as a negative that we are not flying right now, that we rely on the Russians to get to the International Space Station, but on the positive, there are all these private companies lobbying, competing, trying to deliver astronauts and cargo to the station. Many people over the years have said that ultimately, space has to become like the airline industry, where private companies take over in order for it to expand and thrive.

   The industry is now a collaboration between private and public, but lets face it, NASA I still the biggest customer for all these companies. The vast majority of the money people like Elon Musk [SpaceX] and Sierra Nevada get, privately held companies that are trying to build spacecraft to got to the International Space Station, is coming from NASA.

The International Space Station - Space Shuttle Mission STS-134 - NASA

What’s next for NASA?

The whole idea [of ending the Shuttle Program] was to let NASA get out of the business of doing low orbit stuff and concentrate on what they do best, which is moving outward, return to the moon, go to an asteroid, Mars eventually. When will all this happen? Who knows, those projects are going to cost billions and billions of dollars, especially Mars. It is such an astronomical fee that I don’t think anyone can give a realistic price tag on what it would cost.

   As for the next big moon shot, the first test of the Orion Space Craft with a timetable of 2014 will be the next big event. They will be using an existing rocket, launch it about 5,000 miles and then have it do a highspeed reentry. This is fairly ambitious because for the last 30 years, NASA has only been flying a couple hundred miles up to the International Space Station, and besides other unmanned missions, that’s about it.

   There are three main pillars that the majority of NASA’s $19 plus billion per year goes to: the International Space Station, which has funding through 2020; the new heavy-lift rocket SLS, which has a 2019-20 timetable; and the Webb Telescope, the next great observatory, which has had many problems over the years from design to development but is back on track and should launch around 2017. There are a lot of smaller projects like the Curiosity Mars Rover and other unmanned exploration vehicles, but that is where the bulk of the money is going.

Spae Shuttle Discovery - STS-124 unloading the cargo bay - NASA

What are your thoughts on scuttling the Shuttle Program?

I think everyone wishes we had continued outward, but a lot of the astronauts I have talked to, and again, these are shuttle astronauts, always believed that the shuttle program had tremendous value. Without the shuttle, the space station would never have been built; the first American woman to fly in space flew on the shuttle; I can’t count the number of nations that were able to have astronauts fly into space because of the space shuttle. So in many respects it brought the world much closer together in a very small way. I think there is a lot of value in that, whether it was European astronauts, Japanese, Canadian, you name it, they were given that opportunity because of the space shuttle and its ability to carry seven people. I think that has been a great benefit to society.

   One astronaut, Alvin Drew, who flew on several space shuttle missions and the last flight of Discovery said, and I’m paraphrasing: Some day, down the road, we are going to look back and people are going to say my goodness, how audacious were we to build this vehicle to go into space, go to a space station, service the Hubble Space Telescope, put satellites into orbit, then return to earth and land on a runway in a reusable vehicle.

   We may never see anything to the scale of the shuttle program in our lifetime, those kinds of capabilities that it provided and offered. So there is a lot of value in what the Space Shuttle Program did for society, did for the nation, and quite frankly afforded for a lot of nations around the world.

A shot of a nebula from the Hubble Space Telescope - NASA

*Photography provided by NASA

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