With NASA’s space shuttle program drawing to a close and the planned moon missions cancelled, the future of manned space flight is unclear. The space program has long been one of America’s most cherished projects; but we’ve long lacked the will to use the program properly. Which is quite ironic, given the fact that our country was founded by explorers and radical thinkers.
Over forty years ago, a humble man from Ohio set his boot onto the moon. It was a culmination of a decade of hard work that had been fraught with danger and had used every resource our country could provide. In the process some of the most brilliant minds in the world used all of the technology available to them — more often than not, inventing what they needed as they went — to accomplish the goals that had been laid out by a young, visionary president, who embodied all of the hope of a generation. Those goals were to go where no man had gone before, and then to return safely to tell the tale. So, after a decade of design errors, exploding rockets, near-catastrophic disasters, and the loss of three astronauts, two men from the United States became the first humans to tread upon extraterrestrial soil.
But almost as soon as the celebrations had ended, the American public lost interest. Their focus turned to a conflict in Southeast Asia that had taken a turn for the worst, spilling much American blood with little to show for it. Their concerns about economic uncertainty due to stagnation and recession. When tragedy struck in April of 1970, the public’s eyes were again focused on the space program, but this time they were more concerned for the fate of their heroes risking all in the heavens above. It was Apollo 13, and later the Challenger and Columbia disasters, which would bring home the dangers inherent in exploring uncharted territory. And these would prove trying to America at large. When the only time they were reminded of the existence of the space program was when lives were lost or costly mistakes were made, the general public began to question just how practical the expenditure of money was on spaceflight. And so NASA’s budget was slowly eroded, and it’s future plans cancelled one by one.
So now we’re left with the prospect of once again being trapped earthbound, with the only countries capable of sending a man into space being Russia or China. But how do we get ourselves out of this mess? At risk of over-simplifying the issue, the best way to return to space is to commercialize low-earth orbit and then letting NASA reclaim it’s rightful position as the organization dedicated to the exploration of outer space, instead of letting it languish in its current state. By providing incentives, the government can help the private sector find an inexpensive, reliable, and hassle-free route into space. And let us not kid ourselves, private industry is the only group capable of reaching that particular end state, as their necessity to turn a profit requires that that they keep costs low and not kill customers. Also, with NASA freed to pour all of it’s resources into exploration and not commercial interests (i.e. putting communications satellites into orbit), it can once again focus on flying to the moon and then onto mars.
That exploration won’t be easy, though. There will be risks, and lives will be lost, but that is just the nature of the beast. It will also require visionaries and brilliant minds to sort out the problems inherent in space travel. But most of all, it will require the political will and determination of the American people to accept the loss of life and expense of capital in order to venture into the far depths of space. The only way to do that is to inspire them to turn their gaze skyward and to dream like their forefathers did.