It’s hard to believe. But in a few months, The United States will for the first time since 1969 willingly abdicate a huge lead we had in space exploration. I don’t want to overstate this because I don’t want to ignore the fleets of probes that are headed into the solar system that NASA has so brilliantly managed to launch in this last difficult decade. I don’t want to gloss over the spectacular success of the Cassini-Huygens probe and Hubble and the International Space Station and GLAST and WISE and Opportunity and Spirit Rovers and the Mars Global Express and the other active working satellites and missions that have been orchestrated across the solar system.
But there are only four more shuttle missions planned.
When I was six months old, the Russians launched Sputnik. When I could open my eyes and watch TV I saw astronauts on space walks and launch gantries and launch vehicles and I remember the incredible night when I sat next to my Dad’s chair and we watched grainy black and white pictures on our grainy black and white TV, the figures of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin bounce around the surface of the Moon. The high pitched electronic ping that sounds through the thick static of southern technicians in Houston talking to former Navy pilots on another planet is as familiar to me as the Star Trek theme music. The words Mercury, Gemini, Apollo, White Sands, Vandenberg, Canaveral, Space Coast, Saturn V, boosters, capsules, modules, rockets, main engines, NASA, countdowns, all these words rattle around my memories of growing up. A cynic would say I am just remembering the detritus of a falling empire. The last tin and copper plated fragments and oddments of said Empire at its peak.
Consider that for the first time in the history of the space race, the United States will not have a working vehicle to take a man or a package to or from the International Space Station. Granted the ISS is truly international. Italy, Germany, Russia, Canada, France, England, Japan, all of them have technology and investment there but we spent the lions share of the development costs, we do most of the signal processing and we will soon have to go through the Baikonur Cosmodrome in the backyard of Kazakhstan’s “Borat” to put our scientists and experimentation modules up there. Yes, we do move satellites up all the time. I am just saying that US Astronauts won’t have a dedicated launch vehicle for their deployment or return.
The space walks, the probes to the Moon, the Soviet successes and failures, all these narratives are in the DNA of people who grew up in my generation. Consider that six successful manned missions to the Moon and the extraordinary success of Hubble and the Mars missions and the thirty years of watching the cool and competent crews go up and down in the worlds’ first reusable re-entry vehicle have kept alive that notion of our primacy. This is just another page turning in history. And this chapter will close with a whimper, not a bang. It will be dwarfed by the crashing economy, whack-a-mole warfare, terrorism, and worse, the bandwidth consumed by an incurious press that is far more likely to report on the trivialities of different sorts of stars, those that are famous and monied and have vices and the revelations of each excruciatingly unimportant impedimenta.
I’m not saying it’s the end. It’s just weird that we would hamper NASA, an organization that has soldiered on and done some of the best science in the world, for a figure that could easily be paid with AIG bonuses. If I had a say so in how my government spends my money, and I don’t really feel that I have that much say over it, I would fund NASA to the stars and beyond.