SEE UPDATE BELOW
One of my earliest memories is of a board game that came on the back of some cereal box. The objective of the game, if my hazy recollection is correct, was to be the first to get to the moon. This was in the early 1960s, as the United States had just begun to engage the Soviet Union in the space race. As a five-year-old, I didn’t understand anything about the politics going on. I just knew that there were these heroes called astronauts, and they we flying off into space, modern explorers.
The 1960s was a terrible decade in many ways. Our leaders kept falling to insane gunmen; a growing stream of young soldiers were shipped home from Vietnam in body bags; social unrest led to riots in cities and on college campuses; and it all happened under the threat of nuclear destruction. There were good things that happened in the 1960s, of course. But as a child I was only aware of what I saw on TV and that was mostly pretty scary.
But the one great thing I was aware of was that America was leading the world to the Moon. We built amazing rockets, and our brave astronauts rode them into outer space. Every year a step closer to the goal. And it culminated in July of 1969 when we joined the rest of the planet watching the fuzzy images of Neil Armstrong stepping onto the surface of another world. I suppose that was the apex of my pride in the United States. As a nation we had completed this most daring task. It seemed as if anything was possible if we were determined to do it.
Let me say this again: WE PUT HUMAN BEINGS ON THE MOON! Just 60 years after mankind learned to fly, we had stepped upon a different world.
Unfortunately, however, doing great things takes great thinkers, nerve and determination, attributes that have leached out of our political leaders in the 40-plus years since that great day. And now, for the first time in my living memory, the United States no longer has its own way into space.
The Atlantis space shuttle touched down yesterday, the final flight of the last of the shuttles. The United States no longer has the ability to send its own astronauts into orbit or beyond. Our bold adventurers will have to hitch rides with the Russians and private contractors. This wasn’t the case two years ago. Project Constellation, powered by the new Ares rocket, was under full development, but President Obama has killed that endeavor. Now, when you view the NASA web site pages devoted to the Constellation program, you only see this sorry notice:
From where are fathers boldly went, we have cowardly retreated.
UPDATE: Just as a point of perspective and comparison, the Pentagon’s budget in 2010 was $691 billion. In 2008, NASA requested $3.5 billion for continuing Project Constellation in 2009. There’s plenty of money being spent. It all just depends upon your priorities. I for one think space exploration is worth a military budget decrease of one half of one percent.