As of this writing the space shuttle has left the International Space Station for the last time and the program officially ended on Thursday. The next time an American goes into space it will be as a hitch-hiker aboard a Russian rocket. Let that sink in a moment.
For all our accomplishments we are now the baseball-equivilant of a Triple-A affiliate of space, and we are seriously looking at falling down to Double-A. There are some - the visionless narrow-minded dullards - who believe the space program is a boondoggle, a waste of money and resources which would be better spent in other areas.
They are wrong for so many reasons the list would reach to the moon, but it does little good explaining why they are wrong because, well, they are visionless narrow-minded dullards. There is much talk about how the private sector now will take up much of the slack and develop equipment and programs to take advantage of the groundwork laid by NASA. While the private sector may stick a cautious toe in the idea of developing some sort profit making space program, the reality is too much of exploration is undefined for the comfort of the purely for profit sector.
We live in a world of instant gratification, and nowhere is this more glaring than corporations making investments expecting immediate profit. Exploration and research, which is at the core of the space program, seldom provide this, but the fruits of exploration manifest themselves in many more ways than what can be found on the ledger sheet.
The mistake made was in 1969. Had Neal Armstrong salted the moon rocks brought back on Apollo 11 with a drop of oil, you can bet Exxon and Shell would have been building rockets the next day, and NASA would have been out of business. Of course they would have passed on the cost of building those rockets to us, and we would be paying $57 a gallon for gas, but you could probably see the Exxon sign on the moon without a telescope. What really started as a rocket race against the Russians to build superior missiles so they would know we could blow them up easier than they could blow us up ultimately turned into so much more.
The space program has been a successful public-private partnership and produced jobs ranging from high tech scientists and engineers to welders and electricians. The benefits we have received cut across the spectrum of industries and affect us in some way every day. For the record, Tang, Velcro and Teflon did not originate in the space program, but it was the space program that demonstrated the high level of practical use from such products.
However, the space program was the genesis for CAT scan technology, MRI machines, improvements in electronics, insulation, plastics, water purification, and dialysis machines. The list goes on. But more importantly it is the dream of space exploration, the idea that it is no longer fantasy or science fiction that we can actually take the human species beyond the limits of Earth.
We have only scratched the surface of where we may go but that idea is the seed for a generation yet to come. How can a nation as energetic as the United States, a country of creative and talented people, a society of ingenious individuals seeking a way to make a mark, allow itself to become comfortable in second place?
How can a nation founded by explorers willingly forfeit its position as a leader and timidly become a follower.
Yes, I understand budget constraints and deficits, but it is always easy to find a reason to not do something. Dreams are what pushes us forward, and if we did not have dreams, the world would still be flat and the sun would revolve around the Earth. Listening to interviews with youngsters attending the Space Camp in Huntsville, Alabama, the reasons for a United States space program that leads the way become clear. I heard a young girl say she wanted to be the first woman to walk on Mars. That is not science fiction or a spurious goal of a youngster's imagination. It is a very real and tangible mission for a youngster thinking 20 years from now.
I hope that young lady does not give up her dream. I hope she is the first woman to walk on Mars.I just hope she doesn't have to hitch a ride on a rocket with a label reading, "Made in China" to get there.
Ric Latarski is a freelance writer who writes on a variety of topics and can be reached at Rlatarski@aol.com.