As a U.S. senator from Michigan, the epicenter of the automotive world, I see striking similarities between human space exploration and the automotive industry. Following a long period of growth and prosperity through the 1990s and early 2000s, the automotive industry was shaken by the Great Recession, which closed factory doors and cost thousands of American jobs. But Detroit responded by doing what America does best — they endured, they innovated and they rose to the challenge. With record sales in recent years, the U.S. automotive industry has emerged as a great American comeback story.
The space industry has seen similar highs and lows. The Apollo missions that sent humans to the moon — one of the most significant technological achievements in human history — was followed by a hiatus in human spaceflight. The iconic space huttle resumed human space flight missions, but also endured the Columbia and Challenger tragedies. After the retirement of the space shuttle and challenges to field a successor program, our human spaceflight program hit a low similar to what the auto industry experienced.
Now, just like the American auto industry, human spaceflight is making a big comeback. We are once again on the cusp of journeying into deep space and this time we are going boldly and we are going to stay. As NASA charts a new course, Congress should reauthorize the agency and set clear policy guidelines that will provide the stability needed to achieve the ambitious goals we have set for our space program.
The journey to Mars will be our farthest venture yet, taking up to six months to travel several hundred times farther than our missions to the moon. It will require a new spacecraft with more sophisticated life support systems, powerful rockets that can lift several times more mass into orbit than anything flying today, and close partnerships with the private sector and international community. This work is already underway as manufacturers and suppliers across the country design and build components for the Orion and Space Launch System (SLS) rocket. A prototype Orion capsule has already flown in space, and major pieces of the SLS are being assembled and tested in Mississippi, Louisiana and Utah.
One of my top priorities for NASA is to ensure this progress continues. Investments in space exploration help power our American manufacturing industry, drive innovation and job creation, inspire future generations of scientists and engineers, and lead to discoveries that yield tremendous benefits here on Earth. Construction of the Orion capsule and the SLS alone supports approximately 28,000 American jobs across the country, many at small businesses, and has an economic impact of more than $4 billion.
In addition to the triumphant comeback for our human spaceflight program, we must also continue progress on NASA’s other core priorities in aeronautics and science. These priorities are not competing — they are complementary. As an example, when NASA first sent astronauts to orbit the moon nearly 50 years ago, the pictures they brought back of the moon were amazing. But the pictures they sent back of Earth — seen for the first time by human eyes as a fragile blue marble suspended in the emptiness of space — changed our world forever.
As Ranking Member of the Space, Science and Competitiveness Subcommittee, I am working with my colleagues on a bipartisan NASA reauthorization bill that promotes strong investments in science and technology that will help secure our future on Earth and keep us reaching for the stars.
U.S. Sen. Gary Peters (Mich.) is the top Democrat on the Commerce space, science and competitiveness subcommittee.