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Ex-astronaut says NASA should be focusing on Mars

The Pueblo Chieftain Online
CHIEFTAIN PHOTO/
JOHN JAQUES
Astronaut Robert L. Stewart was in Pueblo on Friday to help with the Salvation Army kickoff its Kettle Campaign.
By PETER ROPER
THE PUEBLO CHIEFTAIN

The U.S. space program is stuck in a rut, literally shuttling astronauts back and forth to the International Space Station, when the focus ought to be on exploring the distant planets, starting with Mars.

At least that's the view of retired Army Brig. Gen. Robert L. Stewart, a veteran NASA astronaut who flew on two Space Shuttle missions in 1984-85, and has logged some 12 hours in spacewalking outside the shuttle.

Stewart, 65, and a Woodland Park resident, was in Pueblo on Friday to help kickoff the Salvation Army's annual holiday fundraising campaign.

"The shuttle needs to go away. It's an old and dangerous aircraft," Stewart said. "NASA's going in the wrong direction, from my perspective. We're just doing repetitive missions now with the Space Shuttle and servicing the space station, which we ought to close down. NASA's real job is space exploration and that's what we should be focusing on again."

Stewart, who was a veteran Army test pilot before joining the space program in 1979, said private industry now can take over the job of figuring out whether space is a good place to do research or manufacturing.

"We thought that a zero-gravity environment would be great for manufacturing crystals and pharmaceuticals, but we're making far more progress in laboratories on Earth," Stewart said. "I'm a big believer in private enterprise and if there is a buck to be made manufacturing something in space, some smart guy can figure that out."

Stewart's vision for NASA reaches farther out. First, the space program should be striving to go back to the moon to build a permanent base and observatory on the "far side," where the view of deep space is clearer. Particularly the view to Mars.

"Going back to the moon is important because that's where we can test all the machinery and technology we will need to go to Mars," Stewart. "We can launch and rescue someone off the moon in just three days. It would take six months to a year to get someone back from Mars."

Stewart said going to Mars technically is possible, just vastly expensive.

"That's why mankind needs to make the trip together, as the world, not just the United States," he said. "It could be a unifying endeavor, making the journey to Mars."

Wouldn't it be cheaper and easier to send robots and other data-gathering equipment, rather than a manned mission?

"But you need to send man into space because people see things differently than machines and who knows what we'll find?" Stewart said.

"During one shuttle mission, I took a photograph of a cloud off the Galapagos Islands that looked just like a huge tornado except that it was horizontal to the ocean. We never got an explanation for that cloud, but I'd never seen anything like it," he said.

Stewart became an Army pilot in 1964, flew in Vietnam, and then became a test pilot.

"I applied to become an astronaut because I wanted to fly faster and higher," Stewart said simply as he waved off the idea that seeing the Earth from space must have been a cathartic experience.

"Earth is a beautiful planet and I already knew how fragile it is," he laughed.

"What I missed was that," he added, pointing to a nearby tree. "After a few days of being in the shuttle, in that all-plastic or metal environment, I would have loved to have had a tree with us up there. Here I was, looking down on the entire Amazon rainforest, but I was hungry to see just one tree."

Stewart said his love of the outdoors is why he retired to Woodland Park.

"In Colorado, you can be outdoors 365 days a year," he said emphatically.

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