As a boy in Northern Alabama, I grew up experiencing the wonder and excitement of the space program. The ground often shook beneath our family home from Saturn V rockets tested nearby. These were the same rockets that took Neil Armstrong to the moon when, on July 20, 1969, I and countless other young Americans watched with pride and wonder as Armstrong took his first steps on the lunar surface.
A little over a decade later, two brave astronauts left Earth's orbit in the first shuttle, Columbia. It was humanity's first reusable spacecraft. Since that day, the shuttle program has led to breakthrough technologies and innovation, inspired Americans to explore space and created a skilled, committed workforce that leads the world in scientific innovation.
NASA has been enormously successful in pursuing human space exploration. NASA technology and spin-offs have made America and the world a better place to live. Artificial hearts, life-saving defibrillators, cell phones, lasers, GPS systems, air purifiers and countless other NASA technologies shape our daily lives. NASA has not only led America to explore the depths of outer space, it has altered our individual space and brought us to a greater understanding of our world, our communities and ourselves.
On Friday, the last of the shuttles, Atlantis, made its final voyage into space. The end of the space shuttle era is a bittersweet moment. It has been the star in America's space program for three decades, giving us the Hubble telescope and the International Space Station. It has established American preeminence and enabled us to do what no other nation could.
We are now at a crossroads. Long pioneers in spaceflight, the United States faces the possibility of depending on foreign nations for the superior technologies that space access provides. Yet, the United States can and must remain the international leader in space exploration, particularly in the area of human spaceflight. NASA is a reflection of American exceptionalism, setting America apart technologically, scientifically and economically.
It is crucial in the days ahead that NASA and White House leaders move forward with the heavy-lift space launch system. The United States Congress is disappointed with delays in this vital program. Now is the right time for NASA to follow the guidance provided in the FY 2010 NASA Authorization Act and the FY 2011 Continuing Resolution. The space launch system, built in conjunction with the core stage and the upper stage of a 130 metric ton rocket, is critical for NASA to maintain the heavy-lift capability required for these important missions.
Atlantis' final flight is an opportunity to look forward, not back. The next phase of our journey into space holds untold potential. From the Lewis and Clark expedition in the time of Thomas Jefferson, to the Moon landing of our own day, exploration has led to discovery, innovation and American exceptionalism. America must keep NASA and its central mission of human spaceflight strong. We must continue to expand the human horizon and, by doing so, we will ensure America's continued leadership in space and in the world.