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Is America’s manned space program at an end?

It’s history now — a majority of the American population was born after the space program began, but I have fond memories of sitting in the Belvedere Elementary School cafeteria and watching the launch of the first Gemini spacecraft. This was the program that followed the Mercury launches, and was the proving ground for the first walk in space, docking two spacecraft in earth orbit, and tests to see just how long we could keep a crew in orbit.
I remember sitting in rapt attention as the countdown reached its final 10 seconds. My normally fidgety classmates were still. Even at age 8, we knew what was going on. It wasn’t science fiction, it was the real thing and America was leading the way.
Gemini was followed by Apollo and the magnificent leap that would take us to the moon. In just a dozen years we had gone from barely being able to launch a satellite into orbit to landing a human being on the moon. Since then the space program has carried on. There have been no more moon visits, Apollo was cancelled in 1972, but Americans have stayed in space. The shuttle program, now almost three decades old, has kept us there, and has done a lot more than most people realize. It has placed satellites in orbit, provided the means for building the space station, and most recently, a shuttle crew carried out a miraculous mission to repair and upgrade the Hubble telescope. The experiments and tests done aboard the shuttle are too numerous to name and the lessons learned in the shuttle program have been immense. And most of all, it has maintained an American dominance in space that has lasted almost 50 years.

Unfortunately, and rather distressingly, this is a commitment the current administration is abandoning. I hardly know what to say.
While I am generally supportive of the administration, this is one call they’ve gotten completely wrong. The president, in his recent visit to the Kennedy Space Center, in an uncharacteristically rambling statement, explained his vision of the future of manned space flight. The sad thing was – it wasn’t much of a future at all. The thinking had been, underfunded as it was, that NASA would replace the shuttle with a new family of space vehicles. This was the Ares Program. These would give the United States a launch capability, and through a scaling up of these vehicles, once again give us the ability to reach the moon.
The president all but cancelled the Ares Program and seems content to let the shuttle program shut down. At that point, which will occur in just a few months, if we want to send an American to the International Space Station, we’ll have to pay for ride on a Russian Soyuz flight.
My, how far we’ve fallen.
Mr. Obama did, however, say he wants to continue deep space probes and pursue a direct approach to going to Mars. But, how he plans to do this, without continuing our presence in space, and at the same time, experimenting with how to live and work on another planet, is a mystery. The moon is a handy place to learn how to get along on a far off world. It offers all of the challenges and extremes of another planet, but in space terms at least, is relatively close by. Obama even invoked, with a little rhetorical flourish, a bit of John Kennedy’s famous Rice University speech, where the late president committed the United States, “before the end of this decade” to land a man on the moon.
President Obama used a slight variation of this phrase in reference to his interest in going to Mars. Alas, it was at best, a faint echo of this long ago call to arms. There was nothing in the president’s speech to convince anyone in the audience that he was making a serious commitment to human exploration of the Red Planet.
The shame in all of this is that the United States is all but surrendering its manned presence in space. NASA’s impressive deep space probes program will continue, as will research on propulsion. There will also be extensive use of contractors to deliver supplies and materials to the space station. But, what was chilling was that for the first time it was a statement that America was relinquishing its once dominant role in human space exploration. It is no longer a priority.
Humankind, however, isn’t necessarily sitting still. China is actively pursuing its space program, with three-person space vehicles and a planned trip to the moon. Russia too, as cash strapped as it is, is launching a new generation of Soyuz manned spacecraft. John Kennedy, focusing a nation’s energy, set the moon as our objective. Barack Obama, in a move I still don’t understand, pulled the plug on this long ago goal of making America a space faring nation. It’s a sad ending to a great dream. My only hope is that before long, Congress, or even a rethinking of the issue on the part of the White House, will change this view. President Kennedy, if he were still around, would probably be pleased if we did.
You may reach David Kerr
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