With the touchdown of Atlantis – the final mission of the NASA Space Shuttle program – a 30 year era that produced new technologies and valuable space research will come to a close. For the first time ever American astronauts will have no way of leaving Earth other than “hitching a ride” with a Russian Soyuz space capsule at a cost of over $50 million per journey. U.S federal budget cuts have made the shuttle program’s operational costs unsustainable even though NASA constitutes less than half of 1 percent of the federal budget. In the future, private companies will build and service rockets and spacecraft, effectively turning the space agency into a customer. Among others former astronauts Neil Armstrong, John Glenn and Jim Lovell have protested to no avail. The Constellation program to revisit the moon has also been canned.
It would seem the almighty bottom line has become so sancrosanct that even treasured national programs are not safe from privateers and government spending cuts, especially in the current climate of national debt. Here’s an interesting thought: can there be the same sense of national pride in U.S space achievements when operations are partly controlled by commercial companies with an eye for profit? The NASA space program will go on of course with it’s International Space Station obligations and the eventual design and building of new propulsion systems and spacecraft, but the fact that a great symbol of American pride can effectively be grounded, in my opinion, brings a question into play.
I wonder whether the downgrading of NASA is symptomatic of a larger malaise affecting the United States – namely a loss of confidence that has the country turning inward? Has the decline in U.S power and prestige bruised the grand adventurous spirit the nation is renowned for? Not being from the U.S I cannot have the same sense of loss that some Americans may have over this issue, but then I clearly recall the awe I felt watching the moon landing as a 12 year old in my high school gym, so perhaps I can empathise.
The United States more than most nations is a master of improvisation; of renewal; of the ability to reinvent and reinvigorate itself in times of difficulty. It must have a sense of destiny. It must have a cause in order to grow men and women with the “right stuff” . That cause is the Columbus of the 21st century – space exploration. The NASA space program is wedded to U.S national pride. It needs the whole country at the reception.