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Space Celebrities Look to the Future - 2002-09-27

Space celebrities are urging a new vision for space exploration on the 40th anniversary of President John Kennedy's challenge to put a man on the moon. They agreed that the Kennedy vision needs to be re-captured.

In September of 1962, President John F. Kennedy came to Rice University in Houston, and challenged the nation's scientific community to land a man on the moon by the end of the decade.

Today, forty years later, Houston is home to the Johnson Space Center, and the nation is looking beyond the moon, to Mars.

Politicians, scientists and astronauts gathered at Rice University this month to mark the anniversary of that historic speech, and to discuss the future of the space program. Sir Arthur Clarke, who wrote "2001: A Space Odessey," participated by telephone from his home in Sri Lanka.

He began with a look back, noting how far aviation has come since the Wright Brothers took to the skies in 1903. "We'll be celebrating, as you know, the Wright Centennial, and who could imagine what's going to happen even in the next 50 years, but I think that maybe a thousand years from now, our age, the only thing that it'll be remembered by, if we survive, is the fact that we were the first space-faring humans," he said.

The event was organized by Texas Congressman Nick Lampson, who recently introduced the Space Exploration Act of 2002, which could provide funding for future space projects. ""If we need a space race, we have one," he said. China said they're going to the moon in five years. They shouldn't be there unless we're there to welcome them."

Former astronaut Captain Gene Cernan, the last man to walk on the moon, said America needs to expand the pool of people who go into space. "I want to see us give kids an opportunity not just to meet an astronaut, not just to dream about going into space when they're 30 or 40 years old, but to have an opportunity to go into space between the time they graduate grammar school and before they enter college," he said. "If we can send a 77-year-old into space, why can't we send a 17-year-old into space?"

The 77-year-old the former astronaut is referring to is U.S. Senator John Glenn, the first American astronaut to orbit the earth in 1962. He returned into space aboard a space shuttle in 1998.

Investment entrepreneur Dennis Tito was the first person to purchase a flight to the International Space Station. He foresees a big future for space tourism. "I see the possibility that the price could drop by a factor of ten, and I think if that occurred, we'd see a lot of people flying in space," he said. "You know, not the 400 or so that have flown so far in the last 40 years, but possibly, uh, many thousands. And at that time we'll have both support from the private sector and from the government to possibly launch a Mars mission."

Colonel Eileen Collins is a space shuttle commander who's made several flights, and will be going to the Space Station again early next year. "When President Kennedy made his speech here in September of 1962, I was five years old," she said. "Now, I don't want to encourage a contest here on how old we were in 1962, but I make this point specifically because there's a coincidence here in that I have a daughter who is now that same age. I do have a wish for my daughter's generation: that is that talented individuals will choose careers in engineering and science and technology to keep our country as a leader in space."

Astronaut Scott Horowitz agreed with the panelists that those at the Rice event were preaching to the converted, but he said enthusiasm for the space program is infectious at events like launchings. "And the thing I tell people is we have this magnificent vehicle, the space shuttle," he said. "And people have seen pictures of it on the TV, and if you haven't gotten a chance to go see a shuttle launch in person, it's something you really need to do 'cause it's, it's a religious experience, believe me, to watch one launch, even more so than actually riding the vehicle."

The panelists say that NASA must begin to think beyond next year, and into the next 40 years of space.