I just finished a week of speaking at the Kennedy Space Center visitor complex, sharing with audiences my orbital experiences and hopes for a new generation of discoveries and human advances in space. As always, visitors from all over the world were fascinated to see and touch real artifacts from our half-century of space achievements, to visit the monumental facilities from which the first Moon explorers left Earth, and to imagine where we might go next in space. I share that same eagerness to explore the past, and to take part in the exciting future of space exploration.
At the Kennedy Space Center, we have no lack of evidence of our past space successes: a Saturn V moon rocket, the mammoth Vehicle Assembly Building, the twin Apollo and shuttle launch pads, and a rocket park “forest” exhibiting the pioneering vehicles of the early space age. The Visitor Complex’s museums, IMAX theaters, Shuttle Launch Experience, and interactive shows and exhibits take thousands daily on a fact-filled voyage to the space frontier.
Yet a visitor to the Kennedy Space Center today has a harder time discerning our nation’s future in space. We can see a retired space shuttle orbiter up close, but on this visit my ship Atlantis looked forlorn, missing engines and thruster pods. (That will change when she’s put on display at the Visitor Complex in 2013.) Its once-busy launch pads are now silent; Pad B, where I left for orbit on shuttle Columbia, has been stripped down to its massive foundation. The VAB still looms like a cathedral to exploration, but its empty assembly bays echo with inactivity. A few miles away on Cape Canaveral, the steel and concrete pads of the pioneering Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo programs are slowly losing their battle with the corrosive seaside atmosphere. More lamentable than rust and crumbling concrete are the missing workers: those who sent the shuttle aloft for three decades no longer work here – our space future did not arrive quickly enough.
Behind the scenes at the Space Center, though, there are stirrings. One shuttle hangar already houses test versions of a new astronaut transport craft. Private booster companies are building rockets to carry cargo—and eventually astronauts—to the International Space Station. They will fly this year. An old Apollo test and checkout building has been renovated into the factory for the deep-space Orion capsule. And the remaining cadre of engineers and scientists are still determined to pioneer space. Best of all, the nation’s future explorers and their families — by the thousands – still come here to learn and to dream. It all started here, and they want to experience the Cape’s history and excitement. Most of all, they want to know where and when we will launch, and explore, again.