After the Shuttle: Our next space age

Published 12:07 am Thursday, July 21, 2011

The landing of Space Shuttle Atlantis at Kennedy Space Center this week closes a remarkable chapter in America’s space program.

President Obama announced early last year that human space flight would be discontinued after the retirement of NASA’s Space Shuttle.

The end of the shuttle era, however, will not be the end of American leadership in space. According to NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, “Our destinations for humans beyond Earth remain ambitious. They include: the moon, asteroids, and Mars. The debate is not if we will explore, but how we’ll do it.”

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Space exploration has long been an emblem of America’s courage and can-do spirit. Just as the Apollo program defined a generation by putting the first man on the moon — a milestone that celebrates its 42nd anniversary this week — the Space Shuttle program has carried our sense of wonder and adventure for 135 missions. The International Space Station and Hubble Space Telescope are among its many noteworthy achievements.

Mississippians have been at the forefront of aerospace technology since the beginning of the space program and will be essential to future discoveries among the stars. The NASA Reauthorization Act, which provides funding for NASA through 2013, recognizes the importance of the Stennis Space Center in fulfilling these future endeavors. As a member of the Senate’s Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, I will continue to support Stennis and make sure its facilities are utilized to the best of their capabilities.

Stennis — which employs more than 5,000 and is home to approximately 30 federal, state, academic, and private organizations — has made a monumental impact on our state. As the space center celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, we must remember the Mississippi families who have helped this country reach its space dreams.

Rocket scientist Wernher von Braun recognized the state’s contributions and ingenuity from the beginning. “I don’t know yet what method we will use to get to the moon, but I do know that we have to go through Mississippi to get there!” he famously quipped.

Since then, each space shuttle’s main engine has been tested in Hancock County. Last year alone, the groundbreaking work at Stennis generated an economic impact of $616 million within a 50-mile radius and $875 million across the globe.

The future of space exploration has already begun in Mississippi.

The A-3 Test Stand, a one-of-a-kind test facility currently being built at Stennis, will provide the rocket propulsion testing and simulated altitudes needed to prepare NASA’s next fleet of rocket engines for deep space travel.

Commercial companies continue to turn to Stennis for upcoming space projects. Orbital Sciences Corporation partnered with Stennis last year to test its Aerojet AJ26 rocket engines for commercial cargo flights to the International Space Station.

The company has committed to eight of these ISS missions through 2015.

The journey to space will still go through Mississippi long after the retirement of the Space Shuttle. The historic final flight of Atlantis comes with a look back at what we have done — and what we still hope to do.

Sen. Roger Wicker is a Republican representing Mississippi in the U.S. Senate.