While the rumors, speculation, and debate about NASA’s future direction has exploded in the last few days, NASA administrator Charles Bolden has been out of the country, attending the Ilan Ramon International Space Conference in Israel and holding other meetings there. He did speak with the press there and provided some interesting comments about the future direction of the agency in a 10-minute video provided by Arutz Sheva.
“There are dramatic changes that are about to take place in our human spaceflight program,” Bolden said, apparently in response to a question about flying an Israeli astronaut. “The number one change will be the end of the space shuttle era,” he said, and talked about the impending retirement of the shuttle and the loss of its capabilities. The last shuttle flight, he said, “will be the last time in the history of mankind—unless we change our minds, you know, which I don’t think is going to happen—that you’ll see a vehicle of its capability leave this planet and go into low Earth orbit.”
Bolden suggested that the gap between the shuttle and its successor will give ammunition to some that NASA should, of all things, scrap its astronaut corps. “I can guarantee you that there will be debate as to whether NASA needs to have astronauts,” he said. “I can just see it coming in the United States, you know. I wish it were not going to come up, but it will come up: ‘You don’t have a space shuttle, you’re not flying a vehicle, so why do you need astronauts?’ I get asked those kinds of questions all the time.”
So what will replace the shuttle? Bolden’s comments indicated, as has been reported in the last few days, that the emphasis will be on commercial providers. “What we’re going to focus on, what NASA will focus on, is… facilitating the success of I like to use the term ‘entrepreneurial interests’,” he said. He used that specific term in order to make clear that NASA has used various products and personnel from contractors over the years. “We have been involved in commercial space exploration since I came to NASA, and we will continue to be involved. What’s going to change, I think, is that instead of NASA buying a vehicle and then taking over its primary operations we will buy a service” based on who can provide the best price for transportation to the ISS.
Bolden also said that any exploration of the Moon—whenever that may be—will be by necessity an international program. “No matter what the president—no matter what his vision is, or no matter what he tells us, whenever humans go back to the Moon it will be, I believe, an international effort.”
“My dream is to go to Mars,” he said later. “I won’t make it, probably.” Like going to the Moon, he said, human Mars missions would be an international venture, but before we can “responsibly” send such missions to Mars, we need to first tackle the issues of propulsion and radiation exposure. “For people who get excited about whatever they see come out of President Obama’s vision, and people who want to say, ‘Well, we’re not going to Mars,” we didn’t say that. We said we’re going to Mars one of these days. People will leave this planet, I think, and go to Mars, but when we do it, it’s going to be done responsibly, ethically, and we’re going to do is such that they survive and come home.”
Bolden also paid some attention to the issue of near Earth objects, something that got notice recently with the release of an National Research Council report on NEO surveys and mitigation. “One of my jobs as the NASA administrator—I didn’t realize it when I took the job—is to work in coordination with the Secretary of Defense for protection of the planet, and it means trying to locate and identify things that threaten the planet, be they asteroids or big rocks or what,” he said. Bolden said that NASA has not done a “very good job” looking for NEOs. The impact last summer of an object with Jupiter, witnessed by Hubble among other telescopes, got a lot of attention in NASA and the White House, he said. “That got everybody’s attention, up to President Obama,” Bolden said. “I think you will see us devote a little bit more time—I don’t know how, I can’t state definitively right now how much more money, how much more time, or anything, but you’re going to see one of the things that we do is devote more time and energy to understanding near Earth objects and things that threaten the planet from outside.”
“We’re going to have to adapt to change,” Bolden said near the end of the video. He reminded the audience that the budget proposal and policy changes are only the beginning of the process of changing the space agency. “The president’s decision is the beginning of the debate,” he said. “I think what we’re going to do, based on what I know today, is the best thing for the nation and the best thing for the family of spacefaring nations.”