Charles F. Bolden, Jr.
National Aeronautics and Space Administration
“The history of astronomy is a history of receding horizons.”
These words were penned by Edwin Hubble, the great astronomer whose namesake has, perhaps more than any other scientific instrument, expanded our knowledge of the universe. In 2015 we celebrated the Hubble Space Telescope’s 25th year in operation, and what a quarter century it has been for NASA missions—not to mention the tangible benefits those missions have had for the public, recorded each year in Spinoff.
Hubble has provided us with some of the most spectacular images ever taken, and it has facilitated some of the most important scientific discoveries ever made. Its 25th anniversary has a special significance to me, as I served as a pilot on the Shuttle mission that placed Hubble in orbit. For me, Hubble and everything it has accomplished serve as an enduring symbol of the great things our Nation is capable of when we test the limits of human possibility.
A lot can happen in 25 years. Twenty-five years ago, astronomers were confident that many stars in our galaxy also harbored planets, but we had yet to confirm their existence. Today—thanks to Hubble and the Kepler Mission—we’ve identified and confirmed more than one thousand exoplanets, some of them Earth-sized and orbiting within the habitable zone around their stars.
In that same timespan, NASA and its international partners constructed, flew, and assembled a permanent home for humans off the planet. Today, the International Space Station serves as a test bed for new technologies, a national laboratory for unique scientific research, and a training ground for us to learn how humans can live safely and even flourish in space.
Meanwhile, since 1990 NASA robotic missions have flown by, orbited, or landed on all but two of our solar system’s planets, as well as many of their moons, and they have given us our first up-close look at two dwarf planets, Pluto and Ceres, this past year.
There are many other groundbreaking accomplishments I could tell you about, but I would also like to mention the numerous secondary benefits that have resulted from Agency endeavors. Since the year Hubble went into orbit, Spinoff has recorded nearly 1,200 examples of NASA technology coming down to Earth in the form of commercial products and services. Spinoffs have made an impact on nearly every facet of American life, from consumer goods used daily to critical improvements to our Nation’s productive capacity and public infrastructure. Here at NASA, transferring technology to the private sector is one of our core missions.
A lot can happen in 25 years. A quarter century from now is the close of the decade in which we are planning the first trip to Mars by human explorers, sent there by the Space Launch System and Orion spacecraft. And by 2040, Hubble’s successor, the powerful James Webb Space Telescope, will have completed its mission, giving us even greater insight into the early universe and the birth of the first galaxies. It will even allow us to study the composition of exoplanet atmospheres, a key capability for determining whether there is life on other worlds.
At NASA, we are as excited as ever at the prospects the next several decades of U.S. space and aeronautics missions hold in store for us. And the American public can rest assured that the missions we invest in today will not only continue to push back the horizons of human exploration but also produce practical benefits that make life better on Earth.