The majority of Americans find it “essential” for the U.S. to stay a world leader in human spaceflight, according to a recent national poll. Yet the last mission of the U.S. space shuttle program is scheduled to take off on Friday. How will the shuttering of this historic endeavor change our dreams for space exploration?

G. Scott Hubbard, professor in the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics at Stanford University and former director of the NASA Ames Research Center
Garrett E. Reisman, former NASA astronaut and chief of the Manned Spaceflight Project at SpaceX, a Bay Area space exploration technologies company
Jack Boyd, senior adviser to NASA Ames' center director and senior adviser to the Ames History Office at NASA Ames Research Center

  • Kazu Sano

    Let’s not forget concrete benefits of space travel.   Integrated circuits, CAT scan technology, MRI technology, kidney dialysis machines, cordless power tools and appliances, water purification techniques, and fuel cells can be traced back to research for the Apollo program.  Try to imagine our world today without these and other spin offs of that research.  As we retreat more-and-more from space travel, imagine the future inventions that may never be invented, and imagine how much poorer our lives will be.

    • Transparency activist

      lets not forget that not everything is released. and that the obvious ‘concrete benefits’ of space may remain where they began. IN CLASSIFIED programs.. See the whistle-blowers asking to testify before the US congress as to what they know that CAN STOP GLOBAL WARMING NOW.
      youtube search: National Press Club and DISCLOSURE PROJECT 

  • Martin

    When comparing the ability of humans vs robots to explore Mars people talk about today’s generation of robots. But humans would not land on mars for another 20 years so we need to consider the ability of future robots. The progress in robotics is exponential so I am not at all convinced that we will need humans on Mars in 20 years.Martin

  • corepowernow

    Why doesn’t anyone ever talk about the massive amounts of pollution released in the atmosphere with every shuttle’s launch!? My opinion is to improve our world, the earth, explore and spend astronomical dollars here for hunger, poverty, ignorance, social causes, anything but the extraordinary expense to our only environment! 

  • Jeffery Lowers

    Excellent!  I am a big fan of the research in Space.  Enjoyed the idea of exploring propulsion systems; am sure this research will directly benefit the vehicles used here on the planet too!  Have always been stunned that with such a hugely educated population as the world now hosts there isn’t greater interest in venturing beyond this planet.  Essential is also how this is industry to the world.  Such a more realistic aim than anything Lady Gaga has done!

  • Martin Coppa

    What do you think about the prospects of molecular nanotechnology and specifically of molecular manufacturing in terms of its effects on aerospace design and materials? It would seem to me that this would be a fundamentally transformative direction to go in and a perfect fit for NASA research.

  • Jean in Palo Alto

    The “trajectory” of student involvement in the space program, starting with Sputnik, and extending through all the human exploration of space, had a “long tail” effect on K-12 education for more than 30 years. My education in the 60s and 70s benefited from this vision about space, as expressed publically, by Presidents and public officials — and we need something to take its place, to inspire a new generation of students.
    And that interest spurred a lifelong interest in science and technology. I studied Earth and Space Science in university, and had a career as a technical journalist as a direct result of the space program.

    Jean in Palo Alto

    • transparency activist

      students are interested in space, but new information has come to light. Critical thinking demands you ask why you have not had your television machine slamming it wall to wall like a celebrity murder trial.. its called the disclosure project

  • Marty ROLSTON

    iBM’s watson?

  • Chrisco

    The idea of humans needing to get off the planet for survival is scary, considering what a destructive species we are. While we can speak of asteroids, it is more likely nuclear war and environmental catastrophe that will destoy the Earth’s capacity to maintain humans, so we need to go into space to find something new to destroy.

  • BigBappaMappa

    What are the benefits of continued exploration of our moon (Luna) and  mining of Helium 3. What can we expect by taking elements from the moon and continuously adding to our planets mass and collection of elements while at the same time reducing the size of the moon.

    • assassinklaus

      Every year, tens of thousands of tons of stellar gas and dust are captured by each the earth and the moon. This process of accretion has been occurring for more than four billion years and our ability to mine the moon is unlikely to be anywhere near detrimental to the moon in the next several hundred years, even with existence of transformative technologies like molecular manufacturing.

  • Anupa B.

    NASA’s goals to explore, innovate and inspire are showcased, daily, on its website as reports and updates on various space missions, both manned and unmanned.  Even if 1% of the national time spent on social networks is utilized to visit and stay informed, there would not be a worry about the nation’s school kids falling behind in science and math.

  • Mutnes

    I find the “we need to explore space because we need to get off of the planet” is ridiculous. How will we move billions of people off of the planet? In a world where so many peoplego hungry, thirsty, and are left dying of disease throughout the world, do we really think, were it to ever come down to it, that only a rich few will be able to escape to allow our “species” to survive. I for one will not leave the earth, and if that means I die here, so be it.

    I am not against space exploration, as I think many of the scientific discoveries such exploration engenders is sufficient justification. But lets stop the ridiculous science fiction approach of escaping our destruction of this planet. It is irresponsible.

  • Justin

    Beyond the rightful search for understanding the origins of the universe and the life within it, or laying the infrastructure for a contingency plan given the potential destruction of our planet, NASA technology plays a pivotal role in understanding our own planet, particularly with regards to climate change. NASA-derived data and analysis has been imperative in helping us understand the impacts and vulnerabilities of climate change, providing decision makers with the assessments around which sound policy mitigation strategies can be developed.

  • BigBappaMappa

    How long will it take for a viable space elevator using carbon nano tubes to begin large scale tests?

  • assassinklaus

    How long will it be before we can produce nanotubes in sufficient quantities? One solution would be a manufacturing potential at the atomic scale: molecular manufacturing. 

  • Tom in Oakland

    There are two reasons for space exploration: Matter and Energy. there’s a vast amount of matter of the sort we’re having increasing trouble finding in using on Earth waiting for us in the asteroid belt. And, the sun deposits only about one billionth of its energy output on the planet; the rest radiates into space and is wasted as far as we’re concerned. If we could develop to the point of utilizing these resources, it would be good for the planet.

  • transparency activist

    This whole debate is encapsulated in a bubble within a bubble. Americans need to wake up to the fact that many countries have acknowledged alien contact and that we have investigated their propulsion systems thoroughly. and listening to National Petroleum Radio hacks wax on is just useless. They have a distinct interest in keeping you DISinformed (worse than MISinformed)
    Why do they have a distinct interest you may ask? To make money, duh.. Disclosure project…..

  • Jim in Fort Collins CO

    Landing on Mars is incredibly risky, even for unmanned systems.  For humans to land on Mars after a long, debilitating flight is even riskier.

    A really good idea to reduce the risk would be to take our time by having humans conduct an intense exploration of the Red Planet by remote control from its two natural satellites, Phobos and Deimos.  The delay in radio transmission from Mars to its satellites is so small that humans would

    be able to use robotic telepresence technology to put people “virtually

    present” on Mars before actually taking the risk of making the physical

    descent in large numbers.  The complexity, expense and flexibility would be comparable to remote operation of unmanned aerial vehicles, a routine part of modern military and intelligence activities.

    By using the dusty “soil” of Mars’ moons to cover manned facilities on Phobos and Deimos, the risk of cosmic radiation to residents of the outposts could be reduced to levels comparable to exposures on the International Space Station.  The facilities on those moons might well be safer for humans than any similar facilities on the surface of Mars.

  • red_slider

    Are there any poets on staff at NASA?  At first sight, you may think this question trivial and way off-topic considering a besieged agency which doesn’t need to pile more stuff on an already dwindling budget.  Think again, though.

    Consider the professional poet (and American poets are among the best in the world) who can observe, document, and celebrate people, projects, activities and events and render them in ways that could not otherwise be said. 

    Consider, for example, what a small poem like Frost’s ‘The Road Not Taken’ has done to inspire generations of people to think beyond the ordinary and common choices of life and aspire to something better.  I dare say, more than a few mission control staff and astronauts were influenced by that poem sometime in their childhood.  I suspect, had NASA had poets on staff from the beginning (they have none – there is not even a job category for them at NASA) they would be a very different and flourishing agency today.

    I have started two campaigns to get NASA to seriously consider the matter of putting poets on staff The first is a poem and action at ,
    where you can send NASA an email directly, urging them to hire staff poets.

    The second is a petition at  –

    If you agree that this can be an important tool for inspiring and restoring the importance of NASA in the catalog of American undertakings, I urge you to go to both sites and sign the petition/send the email. Please pass this along to friends, colleagues and networks. Thank you.  – red slider, poet

  • The people who say it is a waste of money need to remember it is less than what, 1, 2 percent of the budget? Out of that we have materials for all kinds of things – including the computers we are using to post on here. And yes, if within 100 years we are a multiplanetary people, it increases our odds of survival if an asteroid hits us or there is some other global danger (disease pandemic, etc.) That is simple fact.

  • red_slider

    Do any of those complaining that NASA’s activities are a waste of dollars that would be better spent on saving the earth recall that it was the release of the photo of the ‘Whole Earth’ (and Stwart Brand’s campaign to pry it loose) that actually kicked environmental concerns into the public consciousness?  A few short years after its release, ‘Earth Day’ was born.  We might not even be aware of these issues had it not been for that single photo snapped by NASA.  An unintended consequence, perhaps. But that is how these things happen, and NASA has produced many more of those unintended but beneficial effects over the years.  I’m not much for assessing off-planet, alien or other wild speculations.  But the history of the few decades of  NASA projects does inform me that it is worth far more than we provide it, just in unintentional benefits for the planet and for the critters – including humans – living on it.  The naysayers, I think, are being fairly myopic about this.

Sponsored by

Become a KQED sponsor