U.S. space program eclipsedThere is a disturbing irony attached to the final launch of the American space shuttle. With the end of the U.S. program, Russia will become the planet’s space monopoly, only a generation or so after the United States beat the old Soviet Union with a manned flight to the moon.
By: The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead, The Jamestown Sun
There is a disturbing irony attached to the final launch of the American space shuttle. With the end of the U.S. program, Russia will become the planet’s space monopoly, only a generation or so after the United States beat the old Soviet Union with a manned flight to the moon. Indeed, after the shuttle is mothballed, American astronauts will have to buy expensive seats on Russia’s vintage spacecraft to transport them to the International Space Station. So not only will the American space program be running in place — or sliding backward — it also will depend on its space-era rival to make the relatively short trip to the near-space orbiting laboratory.
Yet, most Americans and their dysfunctional representatives in Congress are greeting this historic mistake with a collective ho-hum. What a difference from the days when American exceptionalism was celebrated in the scientific and engineering superiority that made the space program possible.
The erosion of the program can be traced to the benign neglect of President Bill Clinton’s administration. The slide accelerated under President George W. Bush. The end of greatness was guaranteed when President Barack Obama failed to keep the shuttle program up and running and opted instead for a remake of NASA that, despite his rhetoric, appears to be grossly inadequate to retain and enhance U.S. leadership.
Arguments for a smaller public space program don’t measure up. Manned flight isn’t necessary, they say, because unmanned technologies, such as the successful Mars missions, can do the job. But they can only do part of the job. Nothing can replace the human eye and human brain when exploring and understanding the cosmos.
The public sector will take up the slack, they say. Really? Thus far, there have been no significant successes with rockets or re-entry vehicles made by private companies. The best they can do is promise a $200,000-per-seat ride into near space in the future. So what’s that about? A high-tech carnival ride for the rich and famous?
A handful of companies claim to be nearing completion of reusable systems. Fine, but in order to get there, they depend on generous contracts from NASA, that is, public money. If history is any guide, private sector cost overruns will total in the billions. Some bargain.
Defenders of retiring the shuttle and “repurposing” the space program insist the U.S. will be the leader in space for at least the next 50 years. But it’s very hard to see how that is possible when the U.S. will depend on Russia for a ride to the space station and rely on a private sector that is more interested in making a buck than in getting an astronaut from Earth to Mars and back again.