I write a blog for a professional association and wrote the following to honor and lament the U.S. manned space program:
As you may have heard, the space shuttle Atlantis will launch tomorrow for the last time. This launch will conclude the shuttle program and quite possibly, the U.S. manned space program, at least in the way we have come to think about it. If NASA is ending the shuttle program you would think that a new program with a new space vehicle would be ready to begin, sadly though, that's not the case, as John Glenn points out in his recent criticism of NASA. Up until last year, NASA did have a plan for continuing the American advance into space, it was called the Constellation Program, and it envisioned a fleet of new launch and crew vehicles that would not only send astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS), but also to the Moon to establish a small outpost. This was part of a comprehensive "Vision for Space Exploration" that would have replaced our halting and stumbling expansion into the solar system with a methodical step-by-step plan to move humans permanently into space. Unfortunately, this plan did not mesh well with new political and budget realities and was ended by President Obama.
Part of me likes to think that the American people haven't quite some to terms with the fact that their trailblazing national space program is ending and they will rise up and demand a halt to this sad development. Still waiting...
Of course, it's not true to say that the U.S. manned space program is ending, President Obama has allocated millions of dollars to private companies building the next generation of what he calls a "space taxi service" that will take both civilians and astronauts to low-Earth orbit. SpaceX, Virgin Galactic, Blue Origin, Boeing, Orbital Sciences, and Sierra Nevada are among the private companies testing prototypes and hoping to lead the next expansion into space. And even if they are not quite there yet, our astronauts will still be able to get to the ISS on a Soyuz capsule thanks to the Russians (guess we need to stay on their good side!). I wonder though if it was a false choice between a national manned space program and a civilian taxi service? Maybe we could have done both at the same time? And as appealing as a next generation space taxi service sounds to some, it raises the question: When has a taxi service ever led the way in exploration and discovery?
NASA has long-term plans, of course, landing on an asteroid or a Martian moon have been discussed as possible future missions. My fear is that these would be stunt missions and nothing like the methodical plan to get out into space to stay that the Constellation program represented. And in the meantime, an entire generation of astronauts, space scientists, engineers, designers, and contractors are being retired. What happens when that knowledge-base and skill-set is lost? You know, it really is rocket science. I hope that the politicians are including start-up costs into their future budgets because we won't be sending humans beyond low-Earth orbit in a taxi anytime soon.
As we watch shuttle Atlantis soar into space one last time, let's reflect with pride on an American space program that was once the envy and inspiration of the world. Let's be thankful for our astronaut corps and the NASA personnel that made it possible. And, finally, let's hope that the American people will demand of their government a space program that fully reflects our national pride, our goals, and our hopes for a brighter future.
Image Credit: IEEE Spectrum
I'm proud of NASA and the amazing legacy that the shuttle program represents and as today's launch proves, NASA still has the right stuff. I hope that we will, in time, again take up the challenge of manned spaceflight as an expression of national will and destiny, and not merely as a budget item that can be eliminated to save a few dollars. I will soon retire this blog as it's clear that the next human to step onto the Moon will not be an American, but I close with hope that even if America sits out a few decades of spaceflight, we have the skill and ingenuity to make up for it...if we choose to.