Final Shuttle Launch Portends Bleak Future for U.S. Manned Space Program

By Wayne Rash  |  Posted 2011-07-09

Final Shuttle Launch Portends Bleak Future for U.S. Manned Space Program

I watched the final space shuttle launch just as I did the first one-on television. There were differences. When Columbia launched, I was watching the television mounted on the bulkhead of the wardroom of a U.S. Navy Perry-class frigate.

Right afterward, I walked out on deck to see the tiny, bright speck followed by an immense cloud as it reached into the Florida sky miles down the coast from our pier. That was the last time I actually saw a shuttle launch.

Today, it was a much improved television, and a much clearer view. And after all of these years, it's still hard to believe the magnificence when you see 4.4 million pounds of exquisitely complicated spacecraft ascend into the heavens. But that was the last time I'll ever see such a flight. For the launch of Atlantis was more than the end of a program. The launch of Atlantis was the end of manned spaceflight in the United States. We will never see another craft carrying people launch from the Kennedy Spaceflight Center.

Yes, I know that there are a lot of people who believe the brave words of NASA that we will return in four years-that we will have another spacecraft, perhaps one from Space-X, perhaps one from another contractor. But the fact is this will never happen. The federal bureaucracy, combined with aggressively anti-science members of Congress, will ensure that another flight carrying a person never leaves from a NASA facility.

I also know that there are several private efforts under way that promise manned spaceflight. Virgin Galactic will probably provide suborbital rides to space for the very rich. There are other companies that promise to do the same. But these do nothing for the advancement of science. They do nothing for the exploration of space. They are entertainment, pure and simple.

So how is it that the U.S., a once-proud space-faring nation, has given up? It is, in short, because we no longer have the political and intellectual will to do things that are hard. We no longer wish to stir ourselves from our comfort to strive for anything. It wasn't always that way.

"We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard," said President John F. Kennedy, speaking at Rice University on Sept. 12, 1962. Kennedy was explaining why it was necessary to spend the money and effort to create a real space program, and he set forth to inspire the U.S. to do it. I remember every step of the way.

Science Is Hard, Budget Cutting Is Easy


I listened when Alan Shepherd took the first 15-minute ride on top of a converted ballistic missile. I listened on the radio when fellow Mercury program Astronaut Scott Carpenter bid "Godspeed John Glenn," as the former Marine test pilot lifted off to become the first American to reach earth orbit. I watched the first ghostly images from the moon, and the first shuttle launch.

In those days Americans believed that there was nothing that we couldn't do when it came to science and engineering. We were willing to take on the tough jobs because those were the jobs worth doing. Now, it appears, no job is worth doing if it's difficult or if it doesn't lead directly to re-election of some member of Congress somewhere. But failing that, the ax falls first on those things that are hard, or at least hard to understand.

The final flight of Atlantis is taking place not because Atlantis has outlived her useful life, but because Congress doesn't understand why science and research is important. They also don't particularly care if those thousands of scientists and engineers who make spaceflight possible lose their jobs, as long as too many of them aren't in their districts. This is why, on a day when we see the U.S. walk away from manned spaceflight, we also see the Appropriations Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives zero out the funding for the James Webb Space Telescope-the successor to the legendary Hubble Space Telescope. Yes, the Webb telescope is over budget, but what government project isn't?

The real reason that the Webb Space Telescope is being killed is the same reason that the shuttle program is being killed-Congress, the people you elected to represent you in Washington-is more interested in telling you how they did the tough task of cutting spending on projects that no longer have any political payback for themselves or their political ambitions. They would rather write off our future than risk losing an election.

Winning elections, it seems, is more important than science. Our congressional representatives want the quick answer, the glib sound bite, the quick 'n' dirty fix. It does not want to do the hard work of keeping the U.S. competitive.

In other words, winning elections is all that counts. This is why Americans who love the space program are no longer heard in Congress. This is why we've walked away from all of the advances in science and technology over the years. This is why we've killed the shuttle.

When Atlantis touches down on July 20 to become a tourist attraction, the mortgaging of our future will be complete. U.S. manned spaceflight will become part of history. Our legacy now lies with a dozen other countries that will continue with manned space exploration because they have figured out that you can't move into the future if you refuse to do those things that are hard. 

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