Until this past week, it was looking as if the United States was repeating the fate of other declining great powers, in at least one notable respect, China’s Ming Dynasty. Some 600 years ago, the Ming emperors sent forth into the unknown a series of massive fleets to travel the seas and acquire both knowledge and treasures. After traveling as far as the southeastern coast of Africa, the fleets were ordered home, never to travel abroad again. Confronting both economic problems at home and increased pressure from rising powers in its periphery, the Ming Dynasty soon collapsed into senescence.
The United States seemed to be following a similar path. Having pioneered manned space flight and the exploration of the solar system, it was beginning to look as if America was willing to abandon space and turn inward to focus on domestic problems. The Obama Administration had cancelled NASA’s Shuttle replacement program and turned to the private sector, including new entrants such as SpaceX, to develop the next generation of civil and commercial space launch vehicles. In the mean time, Cape Canaveral is on standby and NASA is reduced to paying Russia to transport astronauts into space.
Yet, in less than a week, it looks as if the United States is back in space. On Friday, NASA awarded $1.1 billion to SpaceX, Boeing and the Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC) to develop a successor to the Space Shuttle. The SNC concept, called the Dream Chaser, even looks like a small version of the old Shuttle but is capable of carrying up to seven passengers into space and return them to any standard commercial runway. Two of these companies, SpaceX and Boeing, also are building space-rated rockets. It is hoped that these efforts will create a lower cost, more reliable system for sending people and equipment into low Earth orbit.
Early this morning, NASA achieved a stunning feat when the rover Curiosity touched down on the Martian surface. Employing a unique landing system involving a sky crane and the world’s largest supersonic parachute, the mission achieved the equivalent of firing an egg from a cannon atop the Empire State Building into a teacup on the ground without even scuffing the shell. The Curiosity mission is the next step on a path that must lead to a manned mission to Mars.
Reports of America’s demise as a great power have been greatly exaggerated. The events of the past week demonstrate what this country is capable of when our creative genius and entrepreneurial spirit are allowed to flourish.
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