Ex-Shuttle Astronaut Questions NASA's Priorities

February 6, 2003

President George W. Bush memorialized the seven lost Columbia space shuttle crew members by saying that "America's space program will go on."

Where, how, and why remain open questions, said Tom Jones, a former astronaut and veteran of four missions, the last in February 2001 aboard space shuttle Atlantis.

Jones, now a space sciences consultant and author of The Complete Idiot's Guide to NASA, is working on a book about the International Space Station.

The National Geographic Today TV newsmagazine spoke with Jones from his home outside Washington, D.C., about the future of NASA and space exploration.

Where were you when the disaster happened?

I was at home spending a normal Saturday morning, at breakfast, when I tuned in to watch the landing of my friends. After a few minutes the long loss of communications made it apparent something was terribly wrong.

What good will come of this tragedy?

It will force us to reevaluate our commitment to space exploration—where we want to go and why. I'm encouraged by the response so far. People now know that there is a certain amount of money we need to spend to do this safely.

People are finally seeing that maybe we have been shoestringing the space exploration program. It has been easy to let the budget stay static because we didn't see any bad consequences.

Except for times of disaster, isn't the public fairly apathetic about the space program?

What's been missing is a challenge beyond the International Space Station (ISS), which has been inhabited continually for the last two years. Now we must think about what comes next, and I think we've got to talk about going outside of Earth's orbit. It's been 30 years since we went to the moon. So we have to think about future planning, like the asteroids, Mars, and the moon.

What can revitalize the space program?

Continued on Next Page >>


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