Obama Pulls the Plug on a Great Run in Space

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.

True, NASA critics have plenty to gripe about. But what is undeniable is that the Space Shuttle is the most complex space vehicle built by man and made spaceflight relatively routine. It accomplished things the critics in the 1970s didn’t think were possible.

In addition to relying on the Russians, SpaceX and Orbital Science are two companies promoted by privatization disciples. In nearly every other endeavor, privatization works.

There’s only one problem with privatization with space flight -- it isn’t working. Space X is where NASA was in 1960 with Project Mercury. Namely, the ability to put humans into orbit exists on paper, and nowhere else.

In December 2010, Space X finally accomplished what NASA did when Chubby Checker topped the charts with the Twist and the Cowboys were an expansion team -- launch an unmanned capsule into space. Instead of humans or animals in the Space X Dragon capsule, it carried a wheel of Le Brouere cheese. The smarty-pants engineers at Space X thought it would be funny to shoot off a cheese wheel, recalling the famous Monty Python cheese sketch. Space X might be a half century behind NASA, but no one can deny their hipster wit.

Notwithstanding all the wonky support to rip manned space flight from NASA, there are some undeniable lessons from history. Firstly, nations at the vanguard of exploration determine the course of human history. The last great period of exploration in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries witnessed mighty world powers arise because of that exploration.

Secondly, space has quantifiable rewards, particularly military benefits. America is a global military power in large part because America leads in space. America is the most comfortable operating in space because America has been the most committed to space for 50 years. China understands this. So the Chinese are keeping their foot on the accelerator, not backing off.

Space holds secrets to be discovered by the nation most committed to finding them. Whether unlimited helium-3 supplies on the moon or discoveries beyond our imagination, the countries most committed to space will reap the rewards. Given the tendencies of this president to resist policies or philosophies that enhance America’s greatness, don’t expect America’s reach to extend far beyond where Freedom 7 took Alan Shepard in 1961 for the foreseeable future.