America's high-soaring space shuttle program draws to a finale in a few weeks. Thanks to weak national leadership and political gamesmanship, U.S. astronauts will now have to hitch a ride into space aboard Russian Soyuz spacecraft. After 2015-or later-if all goes well, the Space-X "Dragon" space-capsule replacement will be ready to carry an American crew into Earth orbit. Unlike previous U.S. manned space missions, SpaceX, a private company, will bear the full responsibility of transporting NASA astronauts into space.
Despite the loss of two space shuttles and their crews in 1986 and 2003, the U.S. Space Transportation System provided the nation with numerous technological firsts-from first reusable spacecraft to largest crew-carrying spacecraft (seven). No matter, you can't rest on your laurels and neither can the nation. So, it's time to move on in space.
The space shuttle-which first flew in Earth-based drop tests in 1977-was always perceived by critics as a spaceship in search of a destination. You can blame that on post-Apollo government planning (or lack thereof).
Originally, NASA planned a Skylab-like space station to be tended by a fleet of manned and unmanned shuttle ferries. This orbiting platform would be a jumping off pad to the Moon, Mars and beyond. Instead, a drastically slashed post-Apollo NASA budget, following the costly Vietnam debacle, ended up with funding for only one crewed component-the space shuttle. Gone was a permanent space station. Thus, was delivered to the critics,a spacecraft with no place to go.
It really wasn't until the leadership and vision of President Clinton-which spurred the U.S.-Soviet Mir missions of the mid 1990s and the later building of the International Space Station (a project that originated with President Reagan as Space StationFreedom), that the shuttle showed its mettle as a unique orbital vehicle. But it was too little, too late, as far as most space advocates saw it.
And despite all its technological achievements, the shuttle remained an expensive, touchy thing with little margin for error. Sadly, the orbiter never flew as originally sold-it was neither safe nor inexpensive to fly.
Personally, I have mixed feelings about the shuttle's retirement-it leaves America in the lurch.
In retrospect, Congress and the White House were ill-advised, in 1972, when the first shuttle program was sold to Congress. A dynamic manned space program, as first proposed in 1971, was eventually trimmed to satisfy GAO beancounters and anti-space politicians like U.S. Sen. Walter Mondale by 1972-always a sure sign of trouble ahead. Compromise plans rarely result in what's best for the nation.
With today's 20-20 hindsight, NASA should have kept Apollo and its big Saturn launchers. Apollo-Saturn would have provided continued access to Earth orbit plus return trips to the Moon and flights beyond cislunar space. Instead, we squandered NASA's vast Apollo expertise and the industrial infrastructure it created; the space agency was forced, thanks to Congress and several presidents-Nixon, Ford, and Carter-to perform expensive navel-gazing close to the cradle of Momma Earth.
Then along came President George W. Bush with a bold space plan in 2004-dubbed Project Constellation by NASA. It was a modular, Apollo-like concept that would have included the Moon and Mars in future mission planning. Constellation was on its way until the Obama administration pulled the plug. Why? One can only surmise that "all things Bush" were targeted for eradication by the Obama administration.
Regrets are never healthy to entertain for too long in life, and in the case of American manned spaceflight, there are many. So, it's not for America's inability to accomplish great things in space that I regret. This writer is a firm believer that the nation can still do amazing things in space-and will. What the nation lacks in the field of space exploration now are national leaders with courage and vision-among other things.
I am reminded of the great "space men" of the 1950s and '60s; men who steered a young nation, in fits and starts, into space-Dwight Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Werner von Braun, Arthur C. Clarke, Willy Ley, Ray Bradbury, even Walt Disney. They all showed vision, courage and an amazing public "can-do" bravado; they influenced voters and the popular imagination.
"We get the leaders we deserve," is the old ElectionDay loser's lament. Yet, there's reason to think that America's brightest days in space are still ahead. There's always hope for a new beginning with new leadership.
If you are a space enthusiast like me, I encourage you to study your political party's national platform and see what its leaders say about space exploration. Write to your elected officials-on all levels of government, state and national. Let them know about your personal passion for space. America's future in space is in your hands.
Lou Varricchio, M.Sc., was a science writer at the NASAAmes Research Center in California. He is currently involved with the NASA-JPL Solar System Ambassador program in Vermont.