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John Glenn, NASA Leaders Look to U. S. Space Future


Mercury astronaut John Glenn, left, the first American to orbit the Earth, marked the 50th anniversary of his historic flight with a recent visit to the Kennedy Space Center. Glenn sat in the commander's seat of the shuttle Discovery, which ushered him into orbit for a second time in 1998. Bob Cabana, Kennedy's director and a former shuttle commander, sits along side. Photo Credit/NASA Photo


Mercury astronaut John Glenn joined top NASA leaders in Ohio on Monday to mark the 50th anniversary of his historic three orbit mission around the Earth, with a look to the nation’s future in space.

The NASA Future Forum at Ohio State University featured Glenn, a native Ohioan and now 90; NASA Administrator Charles Bolden; John Grunsfeld, NASA’s associate administrator for science; and astronaut Serena Aunon, a medical doctor and engineer.

The panel’s members spanned three generations of spaceflight experience. Though there were differences in their outlook, Glenn, Bolden, Grunsfield and Aunon shared many of the same priorities.

Those include making the most of the research opportunities on the International Space Station to improve life on Earth; fielding the James Webb Space Telescope to advance our understanding of the early universe; nurturing commercial transportation services capable of transporting astronauts to the space station; and developing a launch system and space capsule that can start future explorers on missions to new deep space destinations.

Glenn, whose Feb. 20, 1962 Mercury mission helped the U. S.catch and eventually surpass the former Soviet Union in space, championed the potential of the space station to develop new technologies with economic potential on the Earth. He foresees improved electronics and new medical devices.

But Glenn suggested the U. S. forego a human lunar base, largely because of the cost of keeping its human occupants supplied with food, water, oxygen and the other necessities, and look towards Mars as a long term goal for human exploration.

“I’m convinced there will be a lunar colony. But it may be hundreds of years from now,” said Glenn. “If the goal is Mars, and we confirm life there, we could sustain life there without the need for re-supply. If that is the future of humanity, that is the place we should recognize. NASA is working in that direction. We should use the moon to learn only what we need to know for Mars.”

In his remarks, Bolden focused on NASA’s near term emphasis on managing the agency’s budget and avoiding the cost overruns that plagued the James Webb Space Telescope until oversight of the successor to the Hubble Space Telescope was overhauled.  Now scheduled for a launching in late 2018, the JWST is making steady progress, achieving monthly milestones and budget marks, the administrator said.

“Science does not come cheap,” said Bolden. “There is a lot of pressure on us to perform. That is the way you keep people in your corner.”

At the same time, the administrator stressed the importance to NASA of taking on difficult challenges that keep the U. S.on the cutting edge of new breakthroughs in aeronautics and aerospace — strides that provide a foundation for long term economic success.

“If you don’t fail once in a while, then you have not tried something very hard,” said Bolden. “It smacks you in the face and tells you how little you know and how hard you have to work.”

Under Bolden’s leadership, NASA hopes to nurture commercial transportation services capable of launching astronauts on orbital missions by 2017. That same year, the agency would like to launch an unpiloted test flight of the new Space Launch System with the Orion/Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle. The first launch of the new rocket and Orion with a crew would follow in 2021.

Grunsfeld, a former astronaut, touted the value of NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory mission. Launched in November, the one ton rover that is also known as Curiosity, is on a course to land on Mars in early August.

Curiosity’s landing zone lies within Gale Crater, a large depression that has exposed layers and layers of sedimentary material that should hold clues about the Martian past.

Essentially a rolling chemistry lab, Curiousity will analyze the soil and rocks to establish whether Mars is or once was habitable by some form of life.

“I think the science we get as Curiosity rolls around Gale Crater will blow us away,” Grunsfeld predicted.

Aunon, who was selected by NASA to train as an astronaut in 2009, urged the youngest members of the forum’s audience to prepare themselves for a career in space development by idenfying and pursuing their intellectual interests. The 2009 astronaut training class marked a turning pointing, she noted. With the shuttle program in retirement, she and a small number of classmates are focused on long duration missions to the space station as well as assisting with the development of commercial orbital vehicles and NASA’s new Orion deep space mission capsule.

“Stay true to your goal,” said Aunon. “Stay focused.”



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