As the nation’s most traveled space shuttle made its final flight, the head of the nation’s space agency struck an optimistic tone on Tuesday — vowing that U.S. astronauts won’t always rely on other nations to get to space.
“Just because the shuttle is retired, doesn’t mean NASA is shuttering,” said Charles Bolden, NASA’s administrator. “Far from it. I believe the best is yet to come.”
Bolden’s remarks came during the first day of the 28th National Space Symposium, an annual gathering at The Broadmoor featuring the nation’s top military and space leaders along with representatives from more than 30 countries.
The symposium is scheduled to continue through Thursday, with companies touting the latest technology — such as conversation-loving robots and cryogenic chambers — while also agreeing to billion-dollar contracts between presentations.
More than 9,000 people are expected to attend the event, pumping $25 million to $30 million into the local economy, according to The Space Foundation, which hosts the event.
The symposium comes at a unique time for the American space industry — which finds itself with increasing competition from a host of other nations.
The global space economy grew 12 percent last year, the foundation reported, as smaller nations jumped into the mix. But U.S. spending on space programs dropped slightly in 2011 — garnering questions on NASA’s future.
The U.S. sends its astronauts aboard other nations’ rockets to reach space. On Tuesday, the space shuttle to log the most miles — Discovery — was flown atop a modified 747 jetliner to its final resting place at The Smithsonian Institution.
Speaking to a packed ballroom, Bolden admitted times are “very different” for the agency.
“It’s a tangible example that we are now in a new era of exploration,” Bolden said.
The agency plans to conduct more than 80 missions, including 26 new ones, in the coming year through its more-than $17 billion budget, Bolden said.
Bolden said the under-development Orion spacecraft is making “steady progress,” though it will be years before U.S. astronauts use it to get to-and-from space.
“We’re taking the time to get it right,” Bolden said.
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