Something happened on July 14, 2012 that’s hard to explain. A Russian Soyuz rocket blasted off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan carrying a crew bound for the International Space Station that included an American Astronaut. It’s not that America chose to use the Russian rocket after weighing the pros and cons on a cost-balance sheet and deciding it was cheaper to ride with the Russians than to launch ourselves. It was that we have no choice.
We Can Put A Man On The Moon….
When I was young, growing up in the heady days of Appollo and Neil Armstrong’s (RIP Neil – 8/25/2012) first baby steps into the oceans of the cosmos, a common advertising theme was “We can put a man on the moon but….” The “buts” ranged from “can’t make a good cup of coffee” to “can’t seem to solve world hunger.” I never realized, until now, how much hope, and pride, and enthusiasm were tied up in the first part of the phrase. We – America – at the time COULD put a man on the moon! We had done it! If we can do that, we can do anything!
Now, Apollo is a distant memory. The Shuttle Fleet is retired. NASA languishes from lack of vision, and we quietly and almost meekly accept a ride from the Russians, like some inter-stellar hitchhikers with our collective thumb out. “Hey buddy, you going into orbit? Can I grab a ride? We’ll split gas….”
In the Wilderness, Again….
We’ve been here before. In the late 70s, NASA seemed to languish. The manned space program had all but come to an end with the joint “Soyuz-Apollo” flight in 1975. For 6 years, there were no manned space flights launched by the United States. The shuttle – that workhorse of NASA that most of today’s Americans grew up taking for granted – was over budget, behind schedule, and starting to look as if it would never get off the ground. The public had lost interest in space – the thrill was gone, and we had more important things to do – like ending that pesky world hunger.
People have always questioned the wisdom of spending billions on a space program. The dangers inherent in a manned spaceflight effort, the extra costs associated, and the abject failure of many proponents to expound on the advantages gained make the public apathetic or even belligerent to the expense. It’s hard to measure the benefits of the technologies developed, the knowledge gained, or even the pride and national morale that comes from being able to put a man on the moon, or even into orbit!
Where’s Moses When You Need Him?
What we need now is a leader willing to articulate the dream. No, NASA isn’t going to solve world hunger, or reduce the crime rate, or even show a profit – ever. What NASA will do – what a manned space program does – is give America a sense of pride. A morale boost. A sense of wonder and accomplishment all at the same time. We CAN put a man on the moon. We CAN cure cancer. We CAN make a good cup of coffee! We just need to roll up our sleeves and get to work.
Our current leadership in Washington seems content to be the guys who USED to do these things. We’re not exceptional anymore. We’re not “in a position” to take risks, spend money, be in charge of our own space destiny. We might as well get used to having our thumb out.
It may be a while, but I believe that a politician who grabs hold of this concept – that America is still the place that can put a man on the moon – will win the hearts and minds of the people. That politician will lead America back to where it belongs – the driver’s seat. Not riding shotgun in a borrowed ride….