05 April 2010


(Note: click on any image to enlarge) In the predawn hours this morning, the space shuttle Discovery lifted off on a mission to the International Space Station. In addition to its scientific and supply assignments, today's launch is notable because there are now only three (yes, I said three) launches remaining in the entire Shuttle program -- in May, July and September, 2010.

After the drama and discovery accomplishments of the Apollo moon missions, NASA appeared to take a step backward with the introduction of the space shuttle to operational status in 1982. A big, ugly, functional vehicle, it was compared to a space-going bus or truck, with good reason. It was expensive to launch, poorly aerodynamic to land (akin to trying to fly a brick), and was plagued by several lethal in-flight accidents. Still, the shuttle was the symbol of continued U.S. presence in space, and has in fact racked up a long list of accomplishments.

Yet the step backward aura remains, in part because all shuttle missions are conducted no farther than low Earth orbit, a far cry from the stunning outward advances in manned space exploration beginning with the Mercury program (1959-1963), the Gemini program (1965-1966), and the Apollo program (1961-1975). After the first manned moon landing on July 16, 1969, public and political enthusiasm started to wane with subsequent landings. We lost sight of John F. Kennedy's ambitious vision, funding for NASA dwindled, and now .... now we face the prospect of no significant manned American presence in space for the first time in half a century.

Even (perhaps especially) in times of economic turmoil and political deadlock, this ought to be treated as a national scandal. The benefits of space exploration have been legion, ranging from widespread public access to velcro and GPS, to satellite weather forecasting and the deep space views from the Hubble telescope.

Granted, we've accomplished a number of spectacular unmanned missions throughout the solar system and beyond. But there remains latent within us an ineffable, powerful impulse toward manned exploration (I include women with men when I use the term "manned"). Our fascination with human voyages of discovery are reflected in movies like Star Trek and Serenity, and reflected also in the unquenchable scientific curiosity which leads young men and women to study astronomy, cosmology and exobiology.

President Obama is scheduled to reveal his proposals for the future of American astronauts in space at a forum on April 15. One can only hope that his presentation will be equal or surpass the sweeping vision and inspiration which first launched us into space, and will include the Constellation moon program and far more. Clearly a replacement vehicle is needed for the aging shuttle fleet, but research and development has been excrutiatingly slow and underfunded.

I hope that Obama will fan the flames of our passion for space exploration back to life. Failing that, we will be relegated to the sidelines while other nations pick up the torch.

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