Soon the current mission of the Space Shuttle Atlantis — the last mission in the United States space shuttle program — will end. For the first time in a generation, the United States will have no existing program to place human beings into outer space. Until a new program is developed, Americans who want to get to the international space station will have to rely on the Russians to get them there.
Of course, American exploration efforts are not limited to manned space flight; NASA continues to make excellent use of unmanned probes and drones to explore the planets, asteroids, moons, and outer reaches of our solar system. Many people — including Dr. Science — believe unmanned space exploration is the most sensible approach. They reason that space is too hostile to human beings and therefore it is too expensive to design crafts that can safely house humans in that hostile environment. In their view, we get more far more science bang for the buck through use of unmanned devices.
I understand that position, but also think manned exploration must be a continuing focus. Right now, there is great uncertainty about what course the United States will follow with respect to manned space flight. There will be a gap of some years — at least — and the bright, experienced people who worked on the shuttle program will move on to take new jobs. A great opportunity has been missed. Rather than spending billions on ill-fated stimulus projects, We should have invested that money in the manned space program — which has a history of producing useful technology and encouraging innovation and also has an inspirational and aspirational component.
America must, in part, be about pushing the envelope and leading the world; it cannot simply be about health care dollars and internal disputes about who gets what piece of the pie. The end of one of our most noteworthy forays into the realm of exploration and pure science, with no replacement at the ready, sends a sour message about where we are going as a country and as a society.
We are either moving forward, or we are moving backward. I would rather move forward.