Thursday, July 21, 2011

Wither The American Space Program?

When the Space Shuttle Atlantis rolled to a stop on the runway at Kennedy Space Center early this morning, a disappointing and disturbing reality came to pass: as of that moment, for the first time in decades, the United States no longer had a manned spaceflight program. With the end of the Space Shuttle program, we have become dependent upon Russia to ferry our people to and from the International Space Station. This is not the result of any technical problem. Our great republic, which was the first nation to land human beings on another world, has made a deliberate decision to step away from the exploration of space.

This is not to say that the Space Shuttle program itself should have been continued. The Space Shuttle achieved a great deal in its three decades of operation, including the deployment and maintenance of the magnificent Hubble Space Telescope and the launching of several successful interplanetary robotic probes. But it was a flawed machine whose cost was enormous and whose unsafe design cost the lives of fourteen brave explorers. It is right and proper that the Space Shuttles be sent into honorable retirement.

The mistake we have made is that we have not properly planned for the future of the American space program. For manned spaceflight, there does not seem to be any clear or specific post-Shuttle plans on drawing board. True, the Obama administration has expressed a welcome desire to shift routine launches into orbit to private companies and has described its desire for NASA to invest in new technologies that will make manned spaceflight easier in the future, while Congress has been prodding NASA to develop a new heavy lift vehicle at some point in the future. But in the absence of any clearly-defined plan, all this is nothing but talk.

The only silver lining to all this is that the final end of the Space Shuttle program provides us a unique opportunity to reflect upon the dismal state of the American space program. It is past time that we cut through the ambiguity and indecision that has plagued American space policy in recent years and come to a consensus on a solid, sustainable, and worthwhile plan of space exploration that can be embraced by Americans of all political affiliations.

Any worthwhile American space policy must include a continued investment in our spectacularly successful exploration of the Solar System using unmanned spacecraft. NASA, to its credit, has big plans in this field for the coming years. Juno, a probe which will explore the Jupiter system, is scheduled to be launched this summer. The rover Curiosity, far larger and more advanced than earlier rovers, will be launched to Mars sometime in the fall. New Horizons, launched several years ago, will become the first spacecraft to fly by Pluto in a few years. Ambitious plans for a joint American-European set of unmanned spacecraft to Jupiter, possibly including participation by Russia and Japan, are now on the drawing board.

These missions will build on ongoing efforts that have already helped revolutionize our scientic understanding of the Solar System. Already, there is a veritable armada of robots orbiting or roving on the surface of Mars. The Cassini continues its remarkable exploration of Saturn and its moons, the Messenger probe has recently arrived in orbit around Mercury, the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter continues its intense study of the Moon, and the Dawn spacecraft has just gone into orbit around its first exploratory target in the heart of the Asteroid Belt. The unmanned robotic exploration of the Solar System has been an amazingly successfully undertaking and is something in which every American should take great pride.

But what of the future of American manned spaceflight?

In 2004, President George W. Bush proposed creating a replacement launch system comprising the Orion spacecraft and the Ares rockets, which would first set up an outpost on the Moon and eventually dispatch a human expedition to Mars. It was a sound plan which, had it succeeded, could have completely reshaped human space exploration. But it fell victim to administrative mismanagement and inevitable cost overruns and was essentially cancelled by President Obama in 2010.

In retrospect, Obama's decision to simply cancel the project rather than revitalize and renew it may turn out to be one of the great mistakes of his administration. Former astronaut Gene Cernan, the last man to step foot on the Moon, has called Obama's manned spaceflight policy a "mission to nowhere."

Some advocates of space exploration believe that the President should issue a dramatic statement that gives a specific goal and deadline for the American space program. This is exactly what President Kennedy did in 1961, which he challenged America to land a man on the Moon and return him safely to the Earth before the decade was out. But we don't live in 1961. The challenge met by the Apollo Program was made against the political backdrop of the Cold War, when the American people considered it critical that we "beat" the Russians to the Moon. If President Obama were to go on TV today and challenge America to land men on Mars by 2030, most Americans would simply yawn and change the channel.

So how can we inject our faltering space program with the necessary energy and excitement to give it a chance of success? Simple: tell the truth. Rather than portraying the space program as nothing but a big science project or, at best, a patriotic operation whose only goal is to plant a flag where it has never been planted before, the advocates of space exploration should be emphasizing the potential benefits that a successful space program could bring to the American people and, indeed, to the world as a whole.

I'm not talking about the much ballyhooed "spin-offs" from the space program, which entirely miss the point of the space program. I'm talking about real direct benefits: space-based solar power, obtaining helium-3 from the Moon to power fusion reactors, mining asteroids for their effectively infinite sources of minerals and metals. In other words, I'm talking about bringing the resources of the Solar System into the economic sphere of the human race. In the long run, decades or perhaps a century from now, the fruits of a vigorous and effective space program could be so immense as to fundamentally transform the lives of every human being on the planet for the better.

Advocates of a strong space program may think of these things often, but they are reluctant to talk about it in the public sphere. To most citizens, these ideas sound more like science-fiction than proper public policy. But history is full of ideas which once sounded crazy and are now established fact: cutting a canal through the Isthmus of Panama, creating energy by splitting the nuclei of atoms, building a railway tunnel under the English Channel, or, for that matter, landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth.

We need a space program worthy of our great republic. We should be developing a replacement for the Space Shuttle that will allow us to send astronauts into space in a safe and affordable manner. We should be laying plans for returning to the Moon and landing on Mars. We need to reclaim the limitless ambition and energy which has made our country great in the past, and which could make it great once again.

It is often argued that a drawback to representative democracy and free market capitalism is their inability to foster long-term planning, as they obviously focus on short-term objectives. When it comes to the future of the American space program, we have to begin thinking of bigger things than simply creating jobs in eastern Florida, northern Alabama or southeastern Texas. A great nation like the United States needs to have a great space program that will eventually bring forth unheard of progress and prosperity. That is a goal worthy of a grand alliance between Republicans and Democrats. And despite all the problems our country is currently facing, the time to start is now.

1 comment:

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