Space shuttle Atlantis, the last of the U.S. space shuttles, is currently in orbit on its last mission. There will be no more manned space missions launching from the U.S. in the foreseeable future, although Pres. Obama has predicted we’ll be landing on an asteroid by 2025 and Mars by the 2030s. And while the news is full of stories about the Atlantis flight and all those before it, I’m not watching. I watched the launch, but I’m too disheartened to watch anything else about it.
The manned space program has been the most inspiring endeavor of the U.S. in my lifetime. I was born in the ’40s, so I can say I’ve seen the entire program from start to finish. And I do feel it’s finished. We’ve ceded manned space exploration to the rest of the world. Our experts, with all their knowledge and experience, will retire or drift into other fields, taking their expertise with them. Thousands have already been laid off, with more soon to follow. Who knows how or when these space-savvy engineers will be reassembled to again put men into space. Or if there will still be any funding available for their work.
We’re told private enterprise is the way of the future, but there’s no guarantee that private companies will continue the reach for space, and they’ll drop it in a heartbeat if it isn’t profitable. Meantime, we’ve relegated ourselves to the role of hitchhikers on the space flights of other nations, nations that may not always be inclined to offer us a ride. How does hitchhiking with others prepare us to launch men into space and land them on asteroids or Mars, as the president has predicted? Shouldn’t we be busy perfecting our launches, landings on the moon, and returns?
And what about national defense? What sort of defense capabilities might we be giving up if we can’t put men into space at will?
Some things you just don’t put a price tag on. We put men on the moon with no thought of the cost. We wanted to do it just to prove we could. We wanted to do it first. And we did. What ever happened to that focus, that determination, that spirit?
The Constellation program was to continue manned U.S. space flights some five years from now, but Obama cancelled it. What comes next, if anything, is only a guess. How sad that the U.S. space program has been relegated to a minor supporting role in the overall scheme of things. Where is the wonder, the awe, the excitement that sent two generations of young Americans rushing into math and science classrooms so they could become a part of it? Where is the venture that will have the whole world gazing skyward toward man’s next great challenge? We need to keep exploring. The alternative is simply too dismal to contemplate.