On Oct. 4, 1957, the Soviet Union launched the Sputnik satellite, setting off alarm bells that America was falling behind in space technology.
But America's ingenuity was dramatically mobilized by President Eisenhower, under whose administration Congress passed the National Defense Education Act, providing massive investments in science, engineering and technology.
Those investments paid off when we safely landed a man on the moon, fulfilling President Kennedy's promise. The research program we created spawned some of the most significant technologies of modern life, including personal computers and the Internet.
Today, we are on the verge of another Sputnik moment. In November, China will launch its first lunar orbiter - a major milestone in its rapidly developing space program. In fact, China's progress has been so substantial the Chinese are planning on landing a man on the moon by 2020. A decade or so from now, China's red flag may be flying on the lunar surface.
In this ominous environment, you would think Washington would be trying to recharge America's commitment to space exploration. In fact, the opposite is happening. Right now, NASA is planning to retire the space shuttle in 2010. Until its replacement is ready (not expected until 2015) the United States will have no way to launch humans into space.
During this five-year time gap, we will have to rely on Russia to get our own scientists and astronauts to the International Space Station. As the world's leader in space technology, it is simply unacceptable that we will be in this position of technological dependency. Our national security depends on our ability to explore space without relying on nations who may not always have our best interests at heart. Thankfully, there is still time to prevent this frightful scenario from becoming reality.
Congress should provide NASA with the added funds it needs to narrow or close the gap in our human spaceflight capability, by accelerating Ares and Orion- the shuttle replacement vehicles - providing increased support to potential commercial vehicles, and, if necessary, keeping the space shuttle flying longer than 2010. This will ensure that America stays in control of its space destiny.
I recently passed an amendment to the Fiscal Year 2008 Commerce, Justice and Science Appropriations Bill that provides NASA with some of the funding it needs to address the looming spaceflight gap and further our vital research efforts. This is a major step in the right direction, but I will continue working to eliminate the gap completely.
Since NASA was created in 1958, the research that has gone into the space program has also spurred innovations that have greatly improved our lives - from car phones to heart monitors, from ultrasound scanners to laser surgery.
Recently, NASA has been implementing my plan to use the U.S. segment of the ISS as a "national laboratory," which means that even more breakthroughs can be expected once that lab is fully operational.On Sept. 12, NASA and the National Institutes of Health signed the first of what should be several inter-agency agreements to facilitate ISS research in the future.
We want the United States to be the leader in space research because the unique environment of space enables scientists to conduct many experiments not possible on Earth. For example, NASA is considering placing a sophisticated particle detector on the ISS to learn more about cosmic rays. This research must be carried out in space, where researchers can collect data without the hindrance of Earth's dense atmosphere and gravity. The results could lead to breakthroughs in our fundamental understanding of matter and possibly, new sources of energy.
There is a strong relationship between space research and national security. For example, by using space-based navigation systems, we can guide a missile to within meters of its intended target. This not only allows our military to more effectively hit a target, it also saves civilian lives and limits collateral damage.
The Chinese are gaining ground in technological areas. China recently surpassed the U.S. as the world's largest exporter of information-technology products (and the U.S. has become a net importer of those products). The Chinese are now turning their attention to space technology, and they are determined to use it as a means of strengthening their military. We cannot allow other countries to acquire new weapons technologies while America does not keep up.
On the day before he was tragically assassinated, President Kennedy remarked, "This nation has tossed its cap over the wall of space, and we have no choice but to follow it. Whatever the difficulties, they will be overcome."
As we mark the 50th anniversary of Sputnik, let's renew our commitment to overcome those difficulties once again. We've worked too hard, and accomplished too much, to willfully forfeit our leadership in space. Let's make the necessary adjustments to maintain our supremacy. Our future depends on it.