America belongs in space. After Space Shuttle Atlantis lands this week, the American space program is where it was fifty years ago: lacking a proven capability to put astronauts into low earth orbit. Most Americans cannot remember a time when the United States wasn’t the world leader in space exploration.
Make no mistake, this is President Obama’s space legacy. NASA’s budget is being refocused on global warming and other politically charged projects instead of manned space flight. No word on whether “outreach to Muslim nations” remains a NASA priority.
After the launch of Atlantis on July 8, sympathetic media outlets like CNN were trumpeting NASA’s new “focus on deep space exploration.” This administration spin doesn’t match reality. NASA doesn’t even have the heavy lift capability necessary for the deep space project.
Obama’s termination of NASA’s manned space capabilities may carry political consequences. In 2012, thousands of unemployed aerospace workers along Florida’s Space Coast and I-4 corridor are unlikely to forget who aborted the program. There are also military consequences to the Obama policy. Allowing so much unemployed aerospace engineering talent to scatter to the wind affects America’s military capabilities. Relying on Russia to deliver astronauts to the International Space Station is only the most visible example of other countries surpassing America in space.
I attended the final launch of the Space Shuttle with my daughter. A year earlier, I saw her eyes wide with amazement when she met John Blaha, a veteran of six Shuttle missions. Hers will be the first generation since the 1950s where the dreams of space are merely part of America’s history, as compared with her certain future.
Space dominance was America’s atom bomb 2.0. After American atomic dominance was matched, first by the Soviets, then others, world leadership in space exploration provided Americans with evidence that there is something great about this nation. Some might tut-tut the worth of such intangibles, but to the vast majority of Americans who support the Space Shuttle program (2 to 1), it is real.
Vocal opponents of NASA’s manned space program crow about the benefits of privatized spaceflight. Of all the other federal functions ripe for privatization — the dinosaur postal service for example — Obama targets the one function that provides both national security benefits and requires massive accumulation of capital to conduct. Too bad Obama’s zeal to wipe out manned space flight through privatization doesn’t extend to other parts of the federal government.