Tom Jones can offer a much different perspective on the end of the U.S. space shuttle program. The 1973 graduate is a former astronaut who flew on four shuttle missions, spending 53 days in space as part of crews with Atlantis, Columbia and Endeavour between 1994-2001.
Moments after Atlantis launched on Friday—the final mission of the U.S. space shuttle program—Jones, 56, spoke with Patch about the end of the shuttle program and what he thinks NASA should be doing moving forward.
Jones, now a renowned author and TV commentator on space exploration, also reflected on his career as well as the highs and lows of the U.S. space program.
Patch: What were your emotions watching the final shuttle launch?
Tom Jones: The emotional bond to your ship is a real one and was something that tugged on my heart as it roared upward beautifully in that sun-brilliant candle of flame. I’m also very happy for my friends that they launched and started their jobs in space. You can’t help but wonder what will be coming next.
I think the space shuttle program has been a tremendous asset to the country, and I want to see us build on its legacy. As you see the shuttle rise you’re wondering when the next time you’ll see something as exhilarating and awe-inspiring as this.
Patch: What would you like to see next from the U.S. space program?
Jones: I don’t think most Americans want to see us pull back. The shuttle has been instrumental in our progress. We have to decide as a nation what comes next. The president has given a couple of speeches about going to an asteroid but has not stepped up with the budget or the schedule to achieve those goals.
So we actually have to ask for the resources to match the rhetoric. I would like to see the president to take this opportunity as the shuttle mission comes to an end to really say 'I’m going to make sure the funding and resources are there' and hand it off to his successor, so we don’t lose this advantage that we’ve spent 50 years accumulating.
I would like to see the president and Congress follow through on placing someone on an asteroid or even the moon. That should be the short-term goal we should set for ourselves.
Patch: What was your favorite memory of being in space?
Jones: My favorite was STS-98 (in 2001) doing three space walks to put in place the “Destiny” U.S. lab module at the International Space Center. That was the pinnacle of my career, without a doubt.
Patch: What advice would you give to young people who want to pursue a career in space exploration?
Jones: Here on the ground we have an obligation to let our representatives know what we think of the space program, whether we value it, and whether we think we should be building on the accomplishments of the space shuttle program. That can be done with an e-mail, a phone call, or even a fax to your senator, or even a letter to the president.
Then beyond that, we have to make sure young people, especially those in middle school or younger, know that we’ve got a bright future in space, the country is committed to achieving things with their help, and that we’re depending on them to be excellent in their studies and excellent in math and science and technology classes so that we can actually pull these plans off.
The shuttle team has done a great job for 30 years, but we now need a new generation of innovators, and a lot of that depends on the magnetic pull of our future goals. That’s where I feel like our leadership has dropped the ball by not providing that clear goal for our young students to strive for.
Patch: So you’re saying for the country to back spending the money to commit to the space program, a clear set of objectives need to be identified?
Jones: The vision is first and the resources have to follow. We’re not talking about “break the bank” kind of resources, either. We’re talking about .6 percent of the budget—that's all it would take to go into deep space beyond the space station.
The important thing is stability. If we’re going to commit to something like going to a nearby asteroid, let’s do it sooner rather than later, and let’s keep our eyes on that goal so we can make progress. If our goals change every four years with a new president or Congress, we’re never going to get anywhere.
Patch: What is the space program's biggest accomplishment, outside of going to the moon?
Jones: The moon landing and the shuttle program that followed has led to a permanent outpost in space. The space station will be up there for at least another 15 years, and something else will eventually take its place. With vision and commitment, we should see someone permanently living off the planet from now on.
Patch: Can you reflect on your emotions following the destruction of Columbia and the death of its entire crew in 2003?
Jones: That was so terrible. I lost seven friends on that day. It was just ghastly that we forgot the mistakes we made with Challenger back in 1986. I think what resulted was renewed dedication from the NASA team to excellence and to not letting a mistake slip by us again.
That is the value of the space program. When we make mistakes, we learn from them and try to achieve something close to perfect. That’s what is necessary when you fly into space. I think that dedication and perseverance to strive for perfection can inspire people all over.