Updated: May 18, 2014 at 10:22 am
Col. Jim Dutton has a simple message for Air Force Academy cadets who ask him about his time as an astronaut.
"Everything is better in space," the academy engineering professor who once piloted a space shuttle tells them.
America's manned spaceflight programs have been on hiatus since the shuttle program was shelved in 2011, but Dutton thinks cadets who want to become astronauts have a bright future.
"I think their timing is great," he said.
NASA is working on new vehicles to fill the gap left by the shuttle. The largest is Orion, designed to take astronauts beyond Earth's orbit. Other vehicles in the program are commercial alternatives to what was once the realm of governmental efforts.
The commercial crew program has drawn efforts from two Colorado companies, Sierra Nevada Corp. of Louisville and Denver-based United Launch Alliance.
Sierra Nevada is developing its Dream Chaser spaceplane and ULA is working on a version of its Atlas V rocket to launch manned capsules.
"By 2024 to 2034, we ought to be flying these vehicles and going to destinations," Dutton said.
Dutton says it's no surprise the future of America's space program is heavily vested in Colorado, home to the nation's second-largest aerospace community, trailing only California.
"This is a mecca for where space is going," he said.
After his 1991 graduation from the academy, Dutton aimed his career at the stars. He trained as a test pilot and helped to develop the F-22 stealth fighter.
He said efforts in space have been a boon for other civilian industries that have learned new manufacturing methods, developed new materials and invested in raw science that pays off in orbit and on the ground.
As NASA builds toward a manned mission to Mars aboard the Colorado-built Orion spacecraft, more innovation is certain, Dutton said.
"The design challenges of going to Mars are leaps and bounds beyond going to the moon," he said.
Dutton piloted a shuttle that hauled building materials and supplies to the International Space Station. He was the last rookie to fly the shuttle, which had only veterans aboard its final four flights.
He was in orbit for two weeks.
Dutton says he sees a growing American appetite for space exploration as orbital spaceflight moves to commercial firms.
"We're going to see the role of government is exploration beyond Earth orbit," he said.
Selected as an astronaut in 2004, Dutton quickly learned that the demands of the space shuttle program are massive.
"I was drinking from a proverbial fire hose for the next year," he said of his introduction to shuttle training.
But six years of hard work paid off in one launch.
It's an experience he hopes his cadets can repeat.
"It's hard to beat," he said.