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Chief: NASA relevant for 50 more years; Kelly won't run

Friday - 7/1/2011, 4:20pm  ET

AP: ab8a345b-e800-48f5-a16d-404799fdf239
NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, left, accompanied by astronaut Capt. Mark Kelly, husband of wounded Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., speaks at the National Press Club in Washington, Friday, July 1, 2011. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

Paul D. Shinkman, wtop.com

WASHINGTON -- NASA will see at least 50 more years of superiority in space, the agency's head stated Friday, despite calls that next week's final space shuttle launch signals the end of its dominance in that arena.

Citing a "mission, with a capital 'M,'" from President Obama, NASA Administrator Charles F. Bolden, Jr. outlined a new role for the space agency to follow the closing flight of the last space shuttle, Atlantis, scheduled to blast off in exactly a week.

The 52-year-old agency is setting broader and farther sights, Bolden said, and will turn over much of its traditional responsibilities to the private sector.

"American ingenuity is alive and well," he said, "and it will fire up our economy and help us create and win the future."

Bolden was joined by veteran astronaut Mark Kelly, the husband of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and commander of the second-to-last shuttle mission aboard Endeavour last May.

Giffords continues to recover more than six months after she was shot in the head at point-blank range outside a supermarket in Tuscon.

Kelly outlined a new $2 billion device -- the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer -- that will look more deeply into cosmic bodies to better explain the origins of the universe. The AMS was developed and paid for by contributions from 16 countries, 60 universities and 600 physicists, Kelly said, and has a greater range than the Hubble Space Telescope.

NASA completed installing it on the space station six weeks ago, he said.

Kelly also used the venue to address any rumors that he may run for public office after retiring from the astronaut corps.

"It must be a really slow summer out there," he said wryly. "But I'll go into more detail about that next week when I visit Iowa and New Hampshire."

Giffords is the politician in his family, Kelly said, and he's the space guy.

"I see no reason to change that, now," he said.

Bolden affirmed NASA's next generation would not only continue to show its relevancy, but will also bolster the country's education system and economic stability.

"American leadership in space will continue through at least -- at least -- the next half century, because we lay the foundation for success, and for us at NASA, failure is not an option," Bolden said.

The transitioning astronaut corps will rely on civilian and foreign space organizations to continue to staff the International Space Station and other "low-orbit" missions until at least 2020, he said, while NASA at large will focus on more outlying space objectives, such as returning to the moon, landing on Mars and exploring deep space.

This new arrangement will not only allow NASA to operate more nimbly, Bolden said, but stimulate the American jobs market by turning more of the development and operation of spacecrafts to the American private sector.

He pointed to a bright future for American science, technology, engineering and mathematics students who may want to get involved in space engineering.

"If you're studying in a STEM discipline today, you're going to have a great career ahead of you," Bolden said. "Not just at NASA, but at other government agencies or in private industry or academia."

This academic focus is in line with Obama's 2009 challenge for Americans to shift from the "middle to the top of the pack in science and math education over the next decade." Bolden compared it to President Kennedy's 1962 challenge to land a man on the moon, and return him safely to Earth.

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(Copyright 2011 by WTOP. All Rights Reserved.)