Editor's note: John Zarrella is a principal correspondent for CNN's coverage of the U.S. space program, covering such events such as John Glenn's 1998 return to space, the Mars Pathfinder mission and numerous space shuttle launches.
When the Space Shuttle Atlantis touches down at the Kennedy Space Center, it will be a satisfying moment for NASA’s top man Charlie Bolden, himself a former shuttle astronaut.
“That will signal that we have completed what I set out to do with shuttle when I became NASA Administrator, safely flying out the shuttle program” Bolden said.
During an exclusive interview at the Florida launch complex just days after the Atlantis launch, Bolden discussed a wide range of issues facing the U.S. Space Agency, not the least of which is the loss of a highly skilled workforce.
“I’d like to talk to people from Silicon Valley to get them to come here”, Bolden said. “This is an incredibly rich area of the country and I think people are missing the boat here. They’re missing out on the most talented workforce in the world. I have people here who can do anything.”
They may be able to do anything but most won’t doing what love, very much longer.
A day after Atlantis, the last shuttle to fly, comes home, more than two thousand workers at Kennedy will be laid off, joining thousands of others who have already gotten pink slips.
“This is not the end for the workforce here. We’re transitioning them,” Bolden insists, “We have spent six, seven years developing and conducting a very, very well thought out very rigorous transition program, plan to get from shuttle to the next program.”
The next NASA program is however years away. The space agency is developing a new heavy lift rocket and capsule that will take humans first to an asteroid and then to Mars. But, the first test flight won’t be before 2016.
The NASA Administrator says, “The future for America and our partners is beyond low earth orbit. It’s beyond the moon. It’s back to the moon when we have to but to an asteroid in 2025; to Mars in 2030. Those are achievable goals. Congress has got to help us there. The American public has got to continue to give us the support.”
Right now Congress is not in a giving mood and has apparently lost its patience with NASA over on very big ticket item. The latest space telescope is now under a congressional microscope.
The James Webb telescope was supposed to be the next generation Hubble and was already supposed to be in space. It was supposed to cost less than two billion dollars. Now, the price tag is up to around seven billion and it won’t be ready to fly for at least another four years at best.
Bolden says it would be a terrible loss to science if Webb is cancelled. He insists NASA is now on the right track with Webb but he understands the telescope is on shaky ground.
“We will do what the congress dictates. I’m very hopeful we can convince them of the importance of James Webb and we can get their support for funding for it.” Bolden added, “It’s very difficult times right now fiscally. The nation has to decide what’s important to us.”
The space agency has come under continued fire as an agency with no goal once shuttle stops flying. That couldn’t be further from the truth, Bolden bristles.
“President Obama has given us an incredible opportunity to hit the restart button. For the first time ever, we are now looking at going back to where we were in the late 1970’s, early 1980’s, looking at an exploration program where we take humans beyond where we’ve been before, beyond the moon to an asteroid as the president has directed. He’s thrown down the gauntlet and I’m picking it up.”