When the space shuttle Atlantis blasts off on Friday, it will mark the final NASA shuttle mission ever. But the shuttering of the 30-year-old program isn't the end of American space exploration — in fact, according to NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, it makes way for the creation of new designs that will take us deeper into orbit. In the meantime, the agency will partner with the Russian space program to continue sending American astronauts into space. (At the same time, NASA will aid in the development of a privately run space shuttle industry.)
The Root spoke with Bolden, the first African American to lead NASA, about why he thinks traveling to Mars is critical to the nation, his efforts to recruit more astronauts of color and how the final shuttle mission on Friday may leave him a bit teary-eyed.
The Root: The final shuttle launch is being lamented as the end of an era. Do you think America loses something by giving up the shuttle flights?
CB: Quite the contrary. I think we are poised on the beginning of another era. As you mentioned, we are ending an incredible 30-year era of the shuttle, which has brought in incredible advances in human exploration, technological advances and the like. However, since I became the NASA administrator [in 2009], our goal has been to safely close out the shuttle program.
That started in the previous administration back in 2004, and we're finally reaching an orderly progression of winding that program down. We're off now on the venture of exploration, trying to get humans beyond the world's orbit — as the president has asked us to do — onto an asteroid by 2025 and then to Mars by the 2030s.
TR: Those are some ambitious goals. Is that why NASA decided to end the shuttle program, in order to focus on the technologies needed to reach them?
CB: There are a number of reasons. One of the things we need to do is comply with the law. The Congress for many years, going all the way back to the National Space Act that established NASA, has encouraged us — if not told us — to rely on commercial capabilities to the greatest extent possible. Many administrations have sort of ignored that edict, but President Obama has decided that it's now time to do that. One of my jobs is to facilitate the successful emergence of a commercial space industry. We're well on the way to doing that.
We have a launch coming up in September, when we'll take three new astronauts to the International Space Station to begin their six-month stay. Next year we're going to enter into where I pay a fee for the service of taking cargo — food, clothes and other equipment — to the space station. That will fill in for the shuttle while we continue to develop a [commercial] capability to carry humans. I also want to be able to do exploration. We can't do that if we are still owning and operating lower-orbiting vehicles.
TR: This week The Root featured 14 black astronauts who have traveled into space. Are many African Americans coming into the program now, and are there NASA efforts to recruit more astronauts of color?
CB: There is an ongoing effort to recruit more astronauts of color, women and other minorities. That has been ongoing since 1977, when NASA recruited its first group of space shuttle astronauts. Personally, I'm never satisfied with the number that we have; nor do I think we'll ever have enough. I really want to be able to inspire young people of all races and colors to want to follow in my footsteps and become an astronaut.
One of the things we do is spend significant amounts of our education funding in collaboration with historically black colleges and universities. We have a number of scholarship programs, internship programs and grant programs that go into minority neighborhoods, all the way from middle and high school on up.
We try to use as many of our astronauts as possible who look like kids in some of the minority neighborhoods to talk to them about how they became interested in space, and how they studied and made very diligent efforts to get there. It's hard to become an astronaut; we don't want them to be afraid of it, so we try to tell them how much fun we've had in getting here.
TR: There are often complaints about the cost of NASA. What do you say to Americans who think that spending money on space exploration is a waste?
CB: Space exploration is critical for the nation for a number of reasons. Not only do we help make Earth better through some of our satellites and Earth-observing systems, but look at just the simple things. The use of wireless technology to bring signals about a patient's condition who's coming into a hospital from an ambulance — that generated from the Apollo program and going to the moon.
Look at some of the other medical technology today, all of which came about from our being in space and having to operate thousands of miles away from a place wirelessly. Even our airplanes today, as we reduce the amount of pollution and noise that they make — that came from NASA research and NASA experimentation that supports our space-flight efforts.
TR: You've gone on four shuttle missions. Will the final launch be emotional?
CB: Every mission is emotional for me — all the way back to my very first shuttle mission, when I shed tears after we finally got to orbit. We were only 10 minutes into the flight, and I looked out and saw the continent of Africa coming into view in the front window. But every flight is emotional.
Cynthia Gordy is The Root's Washington reporter.