Drexel astronauts talk about future of space program at alma mater

    Two Drexel astronaut alumni reminisced on the discontinued space shuttle program and spoke about the future of human space exploration Wednesday in Philadelphia.

    Philadelphia native Chris Ferguson said he was honored to captain the final space shuttle flight in July. The discontinuation of the program marked the end of an era, he said, but not the end of a universal itch to know more.

    “Is the romance still there, that yearning to know what lies beyond? Absolutely,” Ferguson said.

    Manned space flight is far from over in the U.S., Ferguson said. He predicted commercial flights to the international space station will be available to civilians in three to four years, and is stumping for NASA’s controversial new space launch system, a mammoth rocket that would propel explorers into earth’s orbit and beyond.

    “The space shuttle was a low-earth orbit vehicle, it didn’t venture any higher than 300 miles in its 30-year history,” Ferguson said. “It really is time to mount an effort to go elsewhere, to go back to the moon to live for six months, to go to Mars.”

    The White House has expressed concern about the project’s $18 billion price-tag.

    Paul Richards, who flew on the 2001 shuttle Discovery, joined Ferguson in a panel discussion and Q&A at Drexel University. The pair fielded questions from college students and school-age kids on their favorite space foods and how an astronaut goes to the bathroom.

    Richards recounted that one of the most surprising things about looking down on Earth from space was how untouched some places looked.

    “Parts of the earth, like the Alps or the deserts, look like nobody’s here,” Richards said. “Other parts of the earth, like you would see the sediment coming out of the Mississippi river and going out for thousands of miles, or all the coal-fired plants in China, all the smoke backing up on the west coast of Taiwan, and you could just see the smog on those islands.”

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