The space shuttle Atlantis lifted off today on its final shuttle mission closing a 30-year chapter in NASA’s manned space program. Looking around the news casts obsessed with Casey Anthony, the dismal jobs report, and other headlines it was hard to find substantial mention of Atlantis’ mission to the International Space Station (ISS).
This just underscores the sad state of America’s space program and it seems as if the shuttle fleet is being retired with a whimper. It’s almost as if NASA and the government want to downplay the fact that there are no concrete future plans.
After President Obama all but scuttled NASA’s manned space program, the agency has been left grasping at straws to remain relevant. Meanwhile Russia, China and other nations are pushing on with their space efforts. So why not us? Blame it on cost-cutting politicians, an apathetic public and NASA’s bureaucracy; there are plenty of reasons. But it could be traced to a lack of long-term planning.
Back in the 1960s, President Kennedy proclaimed his famous goal of landing a man on the moon before the decade ended. Then the U.S. was in a very public space race with a very competitive Soviet Union. One added impetus was that the Russians were winning. It fired the public’s imagination and will for America to forge ahead despite setbacks like the Apollo 1 tragedy. Once Armstrong and Aldrin landed on the moon, everyone celebrated and collectively went on the next thing. NASA’s budget was slashed and bit by bit the agency’s ambition withered; goals like sending astronauts to Mars by the 1980s went by the wayside. The most recent setback was with Obama effectively killing the agency’s plans to return to the moon in a few years.
Now with the shuttle fleet retired, current plans are to develop a new successor to the mammoth Saturn rockets, building spacecraft that can leave Earth’s lower orbit and vague plans to reach an asteroid by 2025 and orbit (not land on) Mars in the 2030s. Frankly that is too far away in time to capture the public’s imagination. For all the hand wringing by NASA, the fact is that the technology to send people to Mars and colonize our moon exists today, actually it has existed for years. What kept that from happening was the lack of will from everyone. Politicians didn’t want to invest their capital on projects that paid off way into the future, NASA seemed to be more interested in conducting tests in space that the average Joe didn’t care about, and the public complained about the costs and necessity of the space program. In truth, the budget for the space program is very small compared to other expenses. To do away with it completely won’t cure our financial woes.
NASA needs clear goals that regains the public’s interest, and more importantly the drive to push the envelope. It may take another nation pulling off a genuine feat to light America’s fire again. Perhaps commercial space craft development will do it (the company SpaceX has plans for a test run to the ISS this year). Or maybe the sight of American astronauts piggybacking on Russian space capsules might do something to boost our motivation. For now though, the next chapter in the U.S. manned space program is still on the launch pad.