As the final mission of the Space Shuttle approaches, a feeling of sadness and regret hangs over the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. Despite protestations by senior political appointees that the space agency has an exciting future, most of us sense it isn’t so. NASA’s signature effort, the human spaceflight program, is in limbo, and there’s no good reason to believe that the administration’s attempt to turn over much of the program to commercial launch providers is going to do anything more than prolong an already painful death.
As befits an administration run by technocrats, there seems to be little grasp at the White House of what the Space Shuttle’s demise means in symbolic terms. For many Americans, and other observers around the world, it is further evidence of America’s decline. The fact that the shuttle was always destined to retire someday is beside the point, because the Obama Administration has no real plan for what will happen next in the manned spaceflight program. So workers are being laid off by the thousands, the industrial base supporting human spaceflight is hollowing out, and astronauts are resigning to pursue more promising careers. In other words, the long-cherished dream that mankind might have a future in the cosmos is slipping away, at least as far as America’s role is concerned.
It doesn’t seem to have occurred to the president or his advisors that of all the decisions they will be credited with or blamed for in the future, the fate of the manned spaceflight program is the one most likely to be remembered centuries from now. The postwar race to the Moon and subsequent attempts to define follow-on goals is so unique in human history that one has to reach back to the likes of Columbus to find a suitable analogy. But the Obama Administration doesn’t see that, and so it is not embracing the one initiative that could assure it leaves a positive legacy for the human spaceflight program.
That initiative is to commit to putting Americans on Mars, with an eye to establishing a self-sustaining colony there. Mars is the only place in the known universe beyond Earth where such an adventure might be feasible. It has water, sunlight, seasons and other features crucial to life as we know it, and its gravity is within tolerable ranges for long-term human habitation. Its similarities to Earth make it an invaluable source of insight into the future of our own planet in areas ranging from cosmology to geology to climatology. And perhaps most importantly, it is actually possible for astronauts to get there within two decades without greatly exceeding the funding that NASA’s human spaceflight program was already expected to receive. In other words, the reason NASA isn’t already committed to Mars isn’t a lack of money so much as a lack of vision. If Washington doesn’t rediscover its vision soon, the human spaceflight program may well be doomed — along with any hope of rescuing President Obama’s reputation among space enthusiasts.
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