Editor’s Note: Leroy Chiao is the CEO and co-founder of OneOrbit LLC, a motivational, training and education company. He served as a NASA astronaut from 1990-2005 and flew four missions into space aboard three Space Shuttles and once as the copilot of a Russian Soyuz spacecraft to the International Space Station, where he served as the commander during Expedition 10. Chiao has performed six spacewalks, in both US and Russian spacesuits, and has logged 229 days in space. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author. View more opinion on CNN.
Nearly 50 years ago today, my friends and I sat enjoying Spam and chunky peanut butter sandwiches (my father had a flair for interesting concoctions), in front of the television, watching the scene in the mission control center as Eagle approached the surface of the moon.
Even through the grainy picture, I was awestruck as two astronauts – Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin – landed almost a quarter of a million miles away and take those first steps on the moon.
I was eight years old, and I knew that the world had forever changed. I also knew that I wanted to be a part of that change – I wanted to grow up and be an astronaut, too.
Twenty years later, I found myself in Houston, interviewing at NASA to be a member of the 13th astronaut group. You can imagine my excitement after being selected – especially since President George H.W. Bush had just announced the Space Exploration Initiative (SEI), which called for over $13 billion to be added to NASA’s budget to begin a program for a return to the moon.
Unfortunately, due to congressional funding battles and changes in presidential administrations, that and other lunar programs never came to pass. Still, despite these battles, America’s astronauts (myself included) have embarked on some remarkable voyages in the last 50 years. Take Skylab, which launched in 1973, and served as our first space station. And Apollo-Soyuz Test Project, the first joint US-Soviet space flight, which, in 1975, marked a symbolic and technical first between the two adversaries in the human spaceflight business.
Meanwhile, the Space Shuttle, which first launched in 1981, was and still stands as the most amazing flying machine ever imagined, built and operated. After all, it can carry a crew of seven, launch into low Earth orbit, conduct operations for two weeks, return to Earth, land on a conventional runway and be refurbished to do it again in around 100 days.
And then there’s the International Space Station (ISS), now in its 21st year of operation and still going strong. It is the most audacious human spaceflight construction project ever attempted – and has brought together former adversaries, including the US, Russia, Japan and Germany, in an unprecedented collaboration.
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So, where is NASA 50 years later? As happens to many large organizations, bureaucracy and other inefficiencies have crept in over the years. Add to that the increased budget fights in Congress and one begins to see why the Orion spacecraft and the Space Launch System rocket, the main components of NASA’s exploration program that have been under development for many years, are still years away from a first flight with astronauts.
President Donald Trump recently gave NASA a “mandate” to build the Gateway, a small crew-tended station that is intended to orbit the moon and serve as a waypoint for future exploration of the moon’s surface, as well as a launching point to destinations beyond. The Trump administration has also called for a US return to the lunar surface within the next decade – and has indicated a willingness to pay for it.
This is a welcome announcement to space exploration experts, but we have all seen this play before. With cautious optimism, we will wait to see if the required funding and political capital for a real program is included in a final congressional budget.
But there are already exciting things happening today, with potentially significant impacts on the next 50 years of spaceflight. Entrepreneurial commercial companies with committed, visionary leaders – and capital – are beginning to develop the rockets and spacecraft they need to explore the moon and Mars (including Elon Musk’s SpaceX and Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin).
And, in January, China landed a probe on the far side of the moon – something no nation had done before. Officials announced recently that China intends to land their astronauts on the moon in the 2030s. Meanwhile, Europe is touting an international lunar base concept.
Which is to say the seeds for international and commercial collaboration are out there. The only question is: who will plant and nurture them?
America should and must. We are the lead partner for the ISS, and it would be a natural progression for us to lead the effort to go back to the moon and head to Mars. In fact, it’s essential to us preserving our place in the world.
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Years ago, while we were training in Star City, Russia, for missions to the ISS, several of us American astronauts met Russian specialists who had worked on the Soviet moon program. They told us that they had not been jealous or upset that America had made it there first. They were happy for us – for humankind having achieved that amazing milestone in our shared history. They had held their glasses up to toast the crews, and for the army of engineers and specialists who made it all happen. It was a unifying event for the world – even if only for a moment.
This is the magic of human exploration and spaceflight. I agree with the people who say that Mars is the next big goal. Imagine the wonder that will be inspired as the world watches the first human steps on the red planet.