Facing the end of his beloved Space Shuttle program, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden became emotional several times today when speaking about the future of the U.S. space program.
The final space shuttle is scheduled to take off July 8. Once the mission is completed, America will have to rely on the Russians to get its astronauts into orbit to the International Space Station.
The head of NASA discussed the future of his agency and U.S. manned spaceflight at a lunch today at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. Also in attendance was astronaut Mark Kelly, the commander of the previous shuttle mission and husband of Rep. Gabby Giffords, D-Ariz., who was seriously wounded at an event with constituents in Tucson, Ariz., in January.
Bolden tried to be optimistic.
"Some say that our final shuttle mission marked the end of America's 50-year dominance in human space flight," he said. "As a former astronaut and the current NASA administrator, I am here to tell you that American leadership in space will continue for at least -- at least -- the next half century because we've laid the foundation for success."
Bolden was emphatic.
"For us at NASA, failure is not an option," he said.
The NASA administrator said the Space Station will remain in operation until at least 2020. And he talked about plans for missions to Mars, the Moon and to an asteroid.
"So when I hear people listen to the media reports and they say that the final shuttle flight marks the end of U.S. human space flight, I have to tell you: You all must be living on another planet," he said. "We are not ending human space flight."
Bolden wants to see private companies in the U.S. build and operate the rockets that will carry Americans into space.
"Let me be crystal clear about this: I believe that American companies and their spacecraft should send our astronauts to the international space station rather than continuing to outsource this work to foreign governments," he said.
Bolden became emotional when remembering the shuttle astronauts who gave their lives in tragic accidents.
"We also remember the hard lessons that have helped us to continually improve safety," he said. "We shall always remember the crews of STS 51, Challenger, and STS 107, Columbia, who made the ultimate sacrifice."
Bolden repeatedly vowed to continue the manned space program.
"I spent 14 years at NASA," he said. "Some of the people I respect most in the world are my fellow astronauts. Some of my best friends died flying on the shuttle, and I am not about to let human spaceflight go away on my watch."
The NASA administrator said the end of the shuttle program won't mean the end of the U.S. space agency.
Getting emotional again, he said, "So when that final shuttle landing occurs and the cheers and tears subside, we will keep on moving toward where we want to go next. Your kids and my grandkids, they're going to do things that today we can barely dream of."
Former shuttle commander Mark Kelly announced his retirement from NASA and the Navy last month. Some have speculated he could have political ambitions -- something he joked about at the lunch.
"There has been quite a lot of speculation about what my plans are and if I plan to run for public office," he said.
"I will go into more detail about that next week when I visit Iowa and New Hampshire," he added, to laughter.
But Kelly ruled out getting into politics, at least for the immediate future.
"My main focus right now and for the foreseeable future is Gabby's recovery and spending more time with my kids," he said at the lunch. "She is the politician and the family, and I am the space guy, and I see no reason to change that now."