Last week’s launch of the Atlantis Space Shuttle — the very last Space Shuttle mission — was described widely as the end of America’s leadership in manned space exploration. In fact, we lost the “space race” long ago — when as a nation we decided it was far more important to pay for cradle-to-grave social programs of all sorts, and to engage in multiple and costly military adventures around the world, than it was to focus seriously on manned space exploration.
The Shuttle Program itself, as the most visible aspect of America’s space program, was conceived in the 1970s based on that era’s technology, but which for years through its high visibilty and PR, masked the decline in America’s commitment to space exploration and the many medical, scientific, and technological benefits it produced. The tragic loss in 2003 of the Columbia Shuttle was a direct result of decisions to cobble together Shuttle missions based on outdated technology, rather than spend money to develop spacecraft and rocket delivery vehicles with contemporary technology.
Neither Republican nor Democratic presidents since the end of the Apollo lunar exploration program in 1975 were willing to take the political heat they would have incurred had they proposed to cut back a single federal benefit program, in order to continue development of newer and more technologically advanced manned spacecraft and missions. At the same time, not one of those many presidents had the courage to admit their decisions were slowly killing NASA in this regard; so they proposed — and Congress routinely concurred — to spend just enough to continue duct-tape fixes to the woefully aged Shuttle program, as evidence they really were committed to manned space exploration.
The demise of America’s manned space program, and the fact that European and Russian programs will now eclipse ours, is a sad tribute to the myopic national vision that has captured national policy in recent decades. Rather than focus — as Presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy did in launching America’s manned space program in the late 1950s and early 1960s — on taking risks and pushing the envelope of entrepreneurship and American know-how, the United States in this 21st Century has become risk-averse; and turned its national gaze from the sky and the far reaches of human advancement, to government coddling and control of virtually every aspect of citizens’ lives here on earth. In spending every last dollar Washington can squeeze from the taxpayers or which the Treasury Department can print as IOUs to future generations, in order to fund these myriad federal social programs, it’s no wonder there’s almost nothing left over for space exploration.
By Bob Barr — The Barr Code