Final frontier

Final frontier

April 23
21:41 2013

The following editorial appeared in the Houston Chronicle on Tuesday, April 23. 

Throughout history, great civilizations have always explored.

Hundreds of years ago it was countries exploring new continents. Two hundred years ago, it was America expanding our borders farther west. I don’t know if space is the final frontier, but I believe it is the next frontier.

Space exploration encourages innovation and improves Americans’ quality of life. But we need vision, leadership and resolve to overcome stagnation and once again recognize the importance of our nation’s space program.

When the Soviet Union launched Sputnik 1 in 1957, it began an era of competition with the U.S. for pre-eminence in space.

President John F. Kennedy pledged to work with Congress to secure American leadership in human space exploration.

He famously stated, “For while we cannot guarantee that we shall one day be first, we can guarantee that any failure to make this effort will make us last.”

Space exploration became a national priority. We beat the Russians to the moon and became the undisputed global leader in space.

But now other nations are again accelerating investments in space, while our own human space program is without a clear mission.

The stakes are high. Leading in space exploration means also leading in technological innovation and scientific discovery.

If China lands a man on Mars before the U.S., it would be devastating to our standing in the global community. We already know that China has plans to go to the moon.

America must be committed to investing in the future, even in challenging economic times.

Unfortunately, our vision for the future has been obscured by the present troubles facing our nation and our economy.

The attacks of 9/11 shifted the nation’s attention and resources to terrorism at the beginning of the 21st century.

Then, just as Americans were beginning to feel a sense of security, the subprime mortgage crisis caused the economy to collapse in late 2008.

In challenging times, it can be difficult for Americans to view our nation’s space program as a priority.

But space exploration is an investment in our future, sometimes the distant future.

It captures the minds of Americans and encourages future generations to dream big, work hard and shoot for the stars.

It not only expands our horizons, but also has practical benefits here on Earth. Technological advancements that are the result of space exploration have improved our quality of life and continue to save lives.

Technologies that were originally developed by NASA include GPS, high-definition TV, laser surgery and Doppler weather radar.

Space initiatives are also important to our national security. Nearly half of all launches of space satellites are defense-related.

Ensuring a robust space program requires two things: a mission and money. But it’s unreasonable to think NASA is going to defy budget gravity and somehow get an increase when everyone else is getting cut.

We are operating in an era of tightening budgets. So we need to play smarter and squeeze as much productivity as we can out of the money we have.

President Obama should work with Congress to provide a vision for the agency. In order to succeed, NASA needs continuity of vision and consistency in its budget.

A picture of the future hangs in my office. It’s a time-lapse photo taken by the Hubble Space Telescope of a speck of sky where nothing was thought to exist.

When the film was developed, there were 3,000 points of light in that tiny area—and each point of light was not a star, but a galaxy.

The future is bright for discovery. But failure to invest in innovation and space exploration could leave America in the dark.

U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith, R-San Antonio, is chairman of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology.

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