Ex-Shuttle Astronaut Questions NASA's Priorities

Bijal P. Trivedi
National Geographic Today
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?

We need goals to drive the new technology forward. NASA has been completely focused on the space station and ensuring shuttle participation in that program—it has little time or resources to set new goals and attract public support, energize Congress or recruit imaginative young minds to NASA or its contractors.

Apart from the value of exploration, why should we continue our space program?

First, we need to reap the economic benefits of space—increase the economic activity in space and prove there are benefits in operating there.

Second, NASA needs to develop technology to ward off cosmic threats to the planet. Right now NASA cannot discover quickly enough any asteroid that could pose a threat. And there are currently no plans to develop a defense system for asteroids on a collision course.

What do you see as NASA's mission?

For the first 30 years of the space program in this country the focus was on the Cold War. But in the last 15 years NASA has used the space station to bring together former rivals and bind them in a common enterprise. But ISS is not a sustainable reason for going to space.

NASA needs to make a new, convincing argument for continuing their mission. They have been afraid that turmoil will lose them the support of Congress and the president.

I understand but I don't agree. I'm frustrated by all the big talk about exploration in the last 10 years, but NASA has done nothing to convince Congress of growing needs and goals.

NASA is just concerned with preservation, not undercutting ISS and hoping that a favorable environment will lead to a bigger budget—they need to stop waiting and lead the debate.

Is the shuttle obsolete?

The shuttle is tremendously capable. It has a huge cargo capacity, robotic maneuverability, it can dock and rendezvous with the space station and the Hubble [Space Telescope], and it can carry a large number of people.

But the technology is 25 to 30 years old. It would make sense not to replace Columbia but instead divert the funds toward building the next generation system—something safer and more efficient.

Who sets the course for NASA?

Goals that require federal spending need to be formally stated by the president in his budget requests, and endorsed by the Congress via adequate funding.

NASA is an executive-branch agency and must toe the president's budget line, but I believe it has the mission of making the case publicly for space exploration and leading the debate on what our goals in space should be.

The space agency should deliver its suggested policy goals to the president and support them with strong arguments, but in our system, in the end the president must adopt them and push them through Congress, or we go nowhere.

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