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Former astronauts discuss bleak outlook of space travel

Alex Kotran / Lantern photographer

The Center of Science and Industry (COSI) played host to a panel discussion on Sunday afternoon featuring three NASA astronauts who are disappointed with the future of space travel.

The fourth annual R. Jack and Forest Lynn Biard Cosmology and Astrophysics Lecture featured former Sen. John Glenn, the first American to orbit the earth; Harrison Schmitt, a member of Apollo 17 and one of 12 people to walk on the moon; and John Grunsfeld, who served as NASA chief scientist and is known as “The Hubble Repairman.”

Ohio State’s Center for Cosmology and AstroParticle Physics (CCAPP) organized the free, public event streamed live globally on NASA TV in an effort to reach out to both the OSU and Columbus community, said center representatives.

One of the lecture’s main points of emphasis was the historical impact of space travel and the need for continued research and exploration.

Schmitt referred to the Apollo missions as a “major ingredient of the common defense” in the 1960s space race with the Soviet Union.

“If we could be successful when they could not, that was the Apollo legacy,” Schmitt said. “It helped bring to a successful conclusion what was known as the Cold War of that period.”

The aim of American space travel has undergone dramatic transformations in the last 50 years, Glenn said.

“The emphasis back then was really on could we do this thing and catch up with the Russians,” Glenn said. “The emphasis shifted over from can we do this to the research area.”

Research, much of it done at the International Space Station and Hubble Space Telescope, is the key to filling in the blanks in the history of the universe, finding new planets and stars, improving the quality of life for all earth’s citizens, and determining the presence of alien life, the panelists said.

Research will be slowed, however, with the Space Shuttle’s retirement next year. While smaller spacecrafts will be launched, only a vessel like the Shuttle could handle all heavy loads going to the International Space Station or Hubble Space Telescope.

“It’s going to take four or five years before we get back on track,” Grunsfeld said.

All three panelists were disappointed with the lack of enthusiasm in space travel research, both in the public and political spheres.

Schmitt pointed out “the real story of space is geopolitical,” saying the public, politicians and media overlook the importance of space travel.

Even people with interest in space travel like Matt Gerberich, a second-year in engineering and physics with aerospace who has been wanting to go to space since second grade, are often unaware of the budget problems with the space program.

“Just a lot of the budgetary issues I had no idea about the details of,” Gerberich said.

The percentage of the federal budget dedicated to NASA has steadily declined in the last 30 years.

Glenn made the point that if there is no money, there can be no exploration. And with China making strides in space travel, America cannot afford to fall behind, Glenn said.

“We lead the world because we lead in research,” Glenn said. “You can’t do things on the cheap.”

Schmitt vocalized the need for a “management reserve of funding” for NASA to help with “slipping schedules” and maintain America’s status as the face of space exploration.

Grunsfeld said space exploration is the “start of … human destiny,” and without it, mankind will not survive.

Gerberich said the lecture helped him better understand the field he wants to go into.

“I thought it was really interesting. There was really impressive people up there,” Gerberich said. “It gave me better insight into the actual mechanics of what we have to do to continue the program.”

 

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