Category: space

Atlantis marks end of an era; future vague

Last shuttle launch, July 8, 2011

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.

Putting a price on dreams

Earthrise -- Photo taken by the Apollo 8 crew in December 1968, showing Earth for the first time as it appears from deep space

I suppose one day President Obama might seem like a geniusif the U.S. space program succeeds in landing men on Mars in the 2030s. If we still have a space program then.

In the meantime, I’d much prefer he didn’t mess with NASA. Not with NASA’s plans, or projects, or jobs, or budget (unless to increase it). Why, especially in these lean economic times, would you eliminate any jobs, particularly those of our highly trained, uniquely experienced space engineers and scientists? Why would you risk losing, much less dump, anyone who has helped develop and advance the U.S. space program? As for manned flights to asteroids and Mars, shouldn’t we first be able to safely and reliably get to and from the space station, and to and from the moon? Maybe we should even establish a base on the moon before trying to move beyond it. Wouldn’t this be the logical next step toward manned deep space exploration?

And, as important as our space program has been and may in the future be to our defense, why would you abandon large portions of it to other nations and to private enterprise? Other nations may not always feel as cooperative and benevolent toward us as they do today. And private enterprise will only stay interested as long as there is profit to be made. The program needs to be funded regardless of profit.

But those are just some of the logical, practical considerations.

The U.S. space program, quite simply, has been and continues to be the most aspirational and inspirational endeavor of our nation in my lifetime. Nothing else has caused so many Americans, and people around the world, to look to the night sky with so much awe and wonder and hope. No other single thing has brought more bright, young, eager minds to the fields of science and math — the very fields President Obama promised to reinvigorate.

In 1961, President John F. Kennedy announced that the United States “should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth.” And we did just that in 1969.

Today people still flock to Florida to marvel at the launch of U.S. space flights. My neighbors still gather in the street at night to watch when the International Space Station passes high overhead. I still gaze at a bright full moon and marvel that men have actually walked there — while I watched on live television.

Sure, it’s an emotional response. That’s the point. You can’t put a price on things like that. You shouldn’t even try.

The Blue Marble