SEPTEMBER 12, 2012

President Leebron, Mr. Vice President, Governor, Senator Hutchison, Mayor Parker, General Bolden, scientists, distinguished guests, my fellow Americans:

Fifty years ago today, President Kennedy stood here at Rice University and called upon this nation to undertake a great and unprecedented effort, comparable in scope and expense only to war, with competition in mind, but with a peaceful and inspiring objective: to send men to the Moon. The outcome was not certain, but confidence was high. We are a nation of innovators, and with the stunning technological breakthroughs of previous decades it was felt that there was nothing we could not do if we put our minds and shoulders into it.

We achieved Kennedy's goal and made it to the Moon, sending several missions to its surface and returning to Earth. Since that time, 40 years ago, we have stayed in low-Earth orbit. We have built and have retired a fleet of space shuttles. We have built a space station with our international partners. Yet through these decades, a cloud of uncertainty has hung over our space program. Several administrations, including this one, have sought to rekindle the flame lit by President Kennedy by defining new targets: returning to the Moon, going on to Mars, and sending people to a near-Earth asteroid.

But this is not enough. Once returning to the Moon, or going to an asteroid, or planting a flag on Mars, the question remains – then what?

Half a century ago, the American public was excited by the prospect of the dawn of the space age. This was a vision that went beyond landing on the Moon. This was a vision in which people could imagine themselves, their children and their grandchildren living and working beyond the Earth within their lifetimes. It had a profound effect on American culture and our view of what the future held.

It is time, not to climb another mountain, but to find out if humanity has a future beyond the Earth - will we, our children or grandchildren live and work and have families on the Moon or Mars or some other place? This is a question we can and will answer. If yes, the United States must lead the way and plant the seed of our nation's values in that future.

We are a people who rise to the challenge. To paraphrase President Kennedy, we do this, not because it is easy, but because it is hard, because it will serve to organize the best of our energies and skills, because it is a challenge that we are willing to accept, and one that we are unwilling to postpone. This is not a race. It is a call to press forward and keep moving forward to create new knowledge, new opportunities, and new economies.

America has led the way in the exploration of the solar system. We have sent spacecraft from Mercury to Pluto. We have revealed Mars to be a world carved by water with expanses of ice on and beneath its surface today. We have mapped out the pummeled surface of the Moon, finding ice there as well, buried in its polar regions. We have discovered that the Earth swims in a vast sea of nearby asteroids and comets. They represent a past and future danger to life on this planet - which we continue to assess - but these nearby objects also represent the resources that give us the opportunity to extend our life beyond this world and into the solar system.

First we need to understand the extent to which Earth life can thrive in the lower gravity of the Moon and Mars. We do not need to go to the Moon and Mars to do that. A centrifuge facility on the International Space Station can answer this fundamental question. At the same time, we need to explore the establishment of a self-sustainable space transportation system that leverages nearby asteroid resources, primarily water, for fuel, life support and protection against radiation. This is needed to expand our reach into space and to the surfaces of the worlds that may be our future homes. It is simply too expensive to lift everything we need out of the gravity well of the Earth. We need to learn to live off the land.

In pursuing this new goal of an open-ended future in space, we seek to find our boundaries, if any. We challenge our imaginations and will put our skills to the test. We will expand our understanding of the universe and develop new technologies. We will be blazing a trail into a new frontier. At the same time, it gives us greater appreciation of the need to steward the resources and environment of Earth.

We invite our international partners to share this journey with us. These past decades have seen nations working more and more together in our robotic exploration efforts. European instruments have flown on American spacecraft to Saturn and Vesta. American instruments have flown on India's robotic mission to the Moon and on Europe's mission to a comet. In human exploration, astronauts from America, Russia, Japan, and other nations around the world have flown together on American shuttles and Russian rockets and are working and living together on the International Space Station.

This new goal now gives the International Space Station an expanded purpose: to understand the range of gravity under which Earth life can thrive, to test closed ecology systems in which we might live, and to test resource extraction processes to be deployed in the low gravity of near-Earth asteroids. The space station itself will be the place where we learn new ways of building, maintaining and reusing permanent facilities in space as we move forward.

Unlike the original Moon program, this program does not require the mobilization of a significant fraction of our national wealth to achieve. Rather, for the first time in many decades, it gives us a focus and direction so that every step we take is a step forward. It gives us tools by which we can measure our progress. This is the dawn of a new space age, one in which everyone in this country has a vested interest. We will all be pioneers, and we look beyond the Earth to expand the American dream and share it with generation after generation to come.

Thank you all, and God bless the United States of America.

M.V. Sykes 2012