Astronaut, KU professor Steve Hawley hopes to see country take new tack on space exploration

Hawley poses during a flight with a T-shirt from his alma mater, Kansas University, where he now teaches.

As the space shuttle program prepares for its final launch Friday, Kansas University’s own astronaut, Steve Hawley, said he’ll miss the shuttle program.

“I’ve seen it coming for years,” he said. “What’s a little bit different is that what’s next isn’t so clear anymore.”

Commercialized space ventures yield America’s next way of getting into space, said Hawley, who today works as a KU professor of physics and astronomy.

Hawley said he hoped the country would focus on ways to get out of low Earth orbit — something the shuttle couldn’t do — and eventually find ways to go back to the moon or make progress on a mission to Mars.

Still, Hawley, a veteran of five shuttle flights, said the space shuttle leaves a remarkable legacy at the end of its 30-year run.

“It’s not a stretch to say back then, we weren’t even sure it would fly,” he said.

Few people probably recognize how remarkable it is that the shuttle can do what it does with what amounts to technology from the 1970s, Hawley said. NASA never fundamentally redesigned it.

“My Ford has got a better display system than the shuttle,” he said.

He said he worried that the space program would lose visibility and its capacity to generate excitement for children and adults alike. It’s yet to be seen whether Americans launching into space on Russian spacecraft will generate the same focus as a shuttle launch, Hawley said.

And activity in the International Space Station doesn’t seem to get as much attention, he said.

“I don’t know that people know Americans have been in orbit constantly for more than 10 years,” he said.

And NASA will now lack the capability to bring most things back from space — trash, or other instruments, Hawley said.

“There’s nothing that will replace the shuttle,” he said.