In less than a single lifetime, space exploration has broken through unthinkable barriers.
Fifty years ago, Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first human to journey into outer space. He was followed only weeks later by astronaut, Alan Shepard Jr., the first American to travel into space.
Shortly after these historic ventures into the new frontier, President Kennedy laid out his imperative to the American people when he said, “I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving a goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to Earth.”
The Cold War space race was full steam ahead, and less than a year after JFK’s famous charge, John Glenn became the first American to orbit Earth. In 1968, America surpassed the Soviets in space exploration by sending the first manned spacecraft beyond Earth’s orbit when Apollo 8 orbited the moon ten times before returning home.
And so it was, before the end of the decade, in 1969, American astronauts Neil Armstrong and Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin of the Apollo 11 crew became the first men to walk on the moon.
In 1981, 30 years ago this April, America launched the inaugural space shuttle, Columbia, the first winged spaceship to orbit Earth. In the three decades since, 356 men and women, including pilots, engineers, scientists, and teachers, have flown aboard shuttles, the world's only reusable human spacecraft and rocket system. In 1986 and then later in 2003, we were reminded that even technological marvels like the space shuttle are not immune from the inherent risks of human space flight when we lost the Challenger and Columbia orbiters and the 14 courageous crew aboard. Our nation will always be grateful for their sacrifice.
The space shuttle program is inextricably linked to Texas’s own Johnson Space Center. Throughout its 30-year history, the shuttle program has been managed in Houston, each mission has been controlled by the talented professionals at Mission Control, and all astronauts who have flown on shuttles have been trained in the community. NASA's current human space flight mission, the International Space Station, was completed using the shuttle fleet and is also managed at Johnson Space Center. As we celebrate this incredible anniversary, Texans should be proud that Houston has been, and will remain, the heart and soul of America’s human space flight program.
Space exploration has inspired the American people to redefine our view of the possible, sparking young men and women to pursue careers in math and science. It has lead to advances in numerous fields, improving our lives and moving us forward as a nation. Through the innovations achieved in space, we have made great scientific advances, enabling us to better tackle challenges on Earth. Key advancements in modern medicine, national defense, meteorology, surveillance, communication, navigation, imaging, and remote sensing for chemicals have all been made possible because of America’s push toward the heavens.
But today, our leadership role in space exploration faces a critical turning point. For the first time in 50 years, and after the last shuttle launch this summer, America will lack the capability to launch a human into space.
To prevent that devastating setback to half a century of achievement and investment in NASA, Senator Bill Nelson of Florida and I negotiated a bipartisan NASA Reauthorization bill to safeguard America's human space flight capabilities while balancing new commercial space investment with a robust mission for NASA. The compromise also prioritizes scientific research and protects our sizeable investment in the International Space Station.
Despite this bill being overwhelmingly passed by Congress, the Obama Administration has dragged its feet in implementing the law. My message to President Obama and NASA Administrator Charles Bolden remains that the framework we passed last year was not merely a suggestion, it is the law. It is also the blueprint to preserving our preeminence in space as a nation. This is strategically important for national security and to achieve the research results that will spur medical and energy innovations. NASA, like many federal agencies, faces budget constraints in this current fiscal climate. Nonetheless, Congress has provided the agency with a strong mission and the priority designation to tackle the next chapter of American space exploration.
Our nation and our space program have always confronted challenges and obstacles to new discoveries and new frontiers of innovation. As President Kenney famously said in 1962, “We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.”
In light of how far we have come in only 50 years, think of where we can be in the next 50 years. What new discoveries will inspire the imagination and ingenuity of the next generation of Americans? With the 50th anniversary of manned space flight, I hope this will be a turning point for NASA to once again recapture America’s imagination; to reach for the dream and make it possible.
Kay Bailey Hutchison is the senior U.S. Senator from Texas.