Wanted: A Space Program with a Vision
As in government policy in general, there are major inflection points for civil space policy, starting with the initial one a little over half a century ago when, after Sputnik, it was determined that we would have a federal civil space program and NASA was formed. Three years later, in 1961, it was decided that NASA would land a man on the moon in a decade, and return him safely to earth.
After Apollo, a decision was made in 1972 that we would build a fleet of space shuttles which would supposedly make space travel routine. Despite the fact that they had not yet done so, a little over a decade later in 1984, President Reagan declared that we would build a space station in earth orbit, using the Shuttle for construction.
In 1986, when Challenger was lost with the first schoolteacher on board in full view of the nation, it was decided that it would no longer be official policy that the Shuttle would be the only space transportation system. In 1989, there was an aborted attempt at a new direction in space policy, in which the current (for a few days more) president's father said that we would go back to the moon, and on to Mars, and settle the solar system. That idea was stillborn due to resistance from the space agency itself, which preferred to focus on its space station and Shuttle.
In 1993, when the space station was on the verge of being canceled, it was saved by only one vote in Congress, and then only because the Clinton administration converted it to a foreign-aid program for the Russians. This explains much of the quandary in which we remain today; in which we are dependent on them for a lifeboat to get us to the Space Station and for actual access to it after the Shuttle retires next year, if current policy follows through.
There were no more major changes, until a year after the loss of Columbia. Then, five years ago today and in the wake of that disaster, President George W. Bush announced that the nation was going to once again send humans beyond low earth orbit (LEO). In his words, humanity was going to go out into the cosmos.