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Commentary: Shuttle program may be over, but NASA continues to dream

POSTED: August 14, 2011 12:30 a.m.

Gale Allen

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More than 10,000 people gathered at Cape Canaveral last week to watch a momentous achievement in U.S. space exploration. I — along with many other Americans — couldn't be more excited about it. No it wasn't the last space shuttle returning home, it was the launch of a robotic probe named Juno on a five-year voyage to the giant gas planet Jupiter - the latest step in NASA's decades-long legacy of launching scientific missions to explore the mysteries of our universe.

The landing of the final space shuttle flight on July 21 marked the end of a remarkable 30-year chapter in NASA's storied history of exploration, but the story doesn't end there. Last week's crowd at the Juno launch proved that the desire to expand the boundaries of human knowledge and discovery is greater than ever. This drive to unravel the mysteries of our universe still thrives within each of us, and will help us understand this strange environment and to prepare us for the next unbelievable chapter in human space exploration.

Having spent 11 years at the Kennedy Space Center, I've had the opportunity to see many launches. I was there when NASA prepared for the shuttle's final Hubble Space Telescope repair mission.

We drove to Kennedy's seaside launch pads, where Atlantis and Discovery stood side-by-side. It was a sight to behold. Atlantis blasted off from one pad carrying a crew of seven, while Discovery stood ready on the other, poised to spring into action should the safety of the crew be in doubt. The thrill of watching a launch and the pride you feel in knowing you contributed to the mission is one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. It never got old.

However, while the thrill of launch lasts only a moment, the impact of a single space mission such as Hubble can last forever. That sort of mission literally can rewrite science and engineering textbooks, and inspire entire generations to explore the universe around them. If the past six months of full-throttle activity at NASA are any indication, the post-shuttle era of space exploration will be just as riveting.

It is impossible to predict the impact NASA's next scientific and robotic missions will have on our understanding of Earth, the solar system and the universe. It's also impossible to ignore the excitement and wonder building around each of these missions.

In June, NASA's ‘Age of Aquarius' dawned with the launch of an international satellite carrying the Aquarius instrument to measure the saltiness of Earth's oceans. Juno is on its way to Jupiter to reveal the origin and evolution of that gigantic planet.

In September, we will launch twin spacecraft around the moon to measure its gravity field, and in October, a new mission will launch into polar orbit around Earth to measure weather and long-term climate trends.

To round out this incredibly busy year, the next Mars rover, known as Curiosity, will embark on a 35-million-mile journey to Mars. It will employ new entry, descent and landing technology that will allow it to dive through the Martian atmosphere with a parachute, then use retro rockets to maneuver closer to the surface.

There, it will hover and lower the car-sized rover gently to the surface. It's like a scene straight out of Star Trek or The Jetsons.

One of Curiosity's instruments is of special interest to me, the Radiation Assessment Detector. I have been involved with the development of the detector since its beginning in 2003.

This detector will measure surface radiation on Mars to help us better understand what steps we will need to take to protect astronauts from harmful radiation when we land the first humans on the Red Planet.

Meanwhile, we are planning to send humans to a near-Earth asteroid! There was a time when this sounded like science fiction. I now can say it's within our reach. Human exploration beyond low-Earth orbit is the next chapter in space exploration, and it's just around the corner.

Over the years, my job has allowed me to do some amazing things. I was at Kennedy during the assembly and construction of the largest scientific laboratory in space, the International Space Station.

I also was able to explore from end to end the Columbia and Endeavor orbiters. I stared in wonder each time I was so close. They truly were engineering marvels. I always liked the landings — the grace, the beauty, as the orbiter silently returned to Earth. How proud Atlantis looked as her wheels came to a stop — mission complete.

The shuttle's mission may be complete, but the drive to explore lives on. I came to NASA to explore new worlds, reach new heights, and go beyond Earth's orbit. That chapter in our space exploration story begins now.

We are building more efficient and lower cost vehicles to reach the places we haven't explored yet. We are committing ourselves to an era of ground-breaking research on the space station to send humans on longer and more far-reaching journeys.

We are turning a new page in scientific exploration that promises to bring even more excitement and amazing discoveries, as well as new mysteries to unravel about our universe. A new era of space exploration is upon us. I, for one, hope to be the first in line to travel to an asteroid or Mars!

Gale Allen is director of strategic integration and management for exploration systems at NASA and a member of the Brenau University Board of Trustees.


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