The End of the Space Shuttle and America’s Greatness
Oct. 5, 1957, was possibly the humblest day in America’s history. All the assumptions about America’s technical superiority came crashing down.
“For much of American history, and certainly throughout the 20th century, if there is one hallmark of the American people, it is their enthusiasm for technology and what it can help them to accomplish,” wrote Roger D. Launius, the curator of Smithsonian’s Planetary Exploration Programs. America saw itself as “the technological giant of the world,” he wrote.
Suddenly that belief was challenged. On October 5, the world woke up to the news that the first-ever artificial satellite, Sputnik, had been launched by the Russians.
“Two generations after the event, words do not easily convey the American reaction to the Soviet satellite,” wrote Launius.
“The launch of Sputnik 1 had a ‘Pearl Harbor’ effect on American public opinion,” he said.
And it got worse. One month later, the first living creature from Earth arrived in space as Sputnik 2 carried a dog named Laika into orbit.
Finally, on December 6, America announced to the world that it was ready to launch a satellite. As the tv crews watched, America’s rocket launched a few feet into the air, before falling back and exploding. “Oh, What a Flopnik!” ran the headline in the London Daily Herald.
It wasn’t until Jan. 31, 1958, that America was successful. But even then, America’s 31-pound Explorer 1 weighed one sixth as much as the almost-184-pound Sputnik.
The American response to this humiliation was huge. The government created nasa. It poured money into science and engineering education. Then on May 25, 1961, after Russia had again humiliated the United States by putting the first man in space, President John F. Kennedy announced that America would shoot for the moon.
Back then, America was desperate to be the world’s leading scientific power. Now, it isn’t that important—America no longer wants to be “the technological giant of the world.”
With the final space shuttle mission under way, Americans are realizing they’ve lost that status. America can no longer put a man in space without help. It has surrendered the lead in almost every field of science. Its position is far worse than it was in 1957. But nobody seems to care. Sputnik created an “illusion” that America was falling behind. This time it is real.
As he lamented America’s falling standards of education at the beginning of the year at Forsyth Technical Community College in North Carolina, U.S. President Barack Obama said: “So 50 years later, our generation’s Sputnik moment is back.”
President Obama is right. But no one has any idea how to fix it.
America became the world’s leading superpower because it was “the technological giant of the world.” Now it has lost that status; its days as a superpower are numbered.
The Last American Manned Space Vehicle?
After racing Russia to the moon, the U.S. can no longer get a man into space without its help. The space shuttle Atlantis is visiting the International Space Station for the last time. nasa isn’t scheduled to finish a replacement until the end of 2016, and even this seems optimistic. At the beginning of this year, nasa told Congress that what it was demanding of the agency was impossible—it couldn’t build a space shuttle replacement by 2017 on the budget it had been given.
Obama’s decision to cancel the earlier space program that began under George W. Bush “means that essentially the U.S. has decided that they’re not going to be a significant player in human space flight for the foreseeable future,” said former nasa administrator Michael Griffin. “The path that they’re on with this budget is a path that can’t work.”
China has already put men in space. India aims to do so in 2016.
If, or even when, America gets its manned space program up and running again, other nations may be the leaders in space flight.
It seems China has already caught up with America’s space surveillance operations. “Starting from almost no live surveillance capability 10 years ago, today the pla has likely equaled the U.S.’s ability to observe targets from space for some real-time operations,” wrote Eric Hagt and Matthew Durnin of the World Security Institute in the Journal of Strategic Studies.
nasa may be making the best use of its available funds with its current program. And if it was only manned spaceflight that America was falling behind in, there wouldn’t be much to worry about. Those who argue that unmanned spaceflight will deliver better results for less money may be right. But America is falling behind in so many more areas than just space exploration.
Europe’s Small Advantage
Space is not the only frontier in technological development. Another exciting, and hugely expensive, scientific project is the quest to understand the building blocks the universe is made of.
Much of this work is done by particle accelerators—huge machines that smash subatomic particles together at very high energies. Attempting to unravel the mysteries of the universe this way is akin to trying to discern how a watch works by smashing two watches together and observing how the pieces fly apart.
The prize that scientists have been hoping to discover for decades is the Higgs particle. Sometimes given the name of “the God particle,” the Higgs is a hypothetical particle that gives everything in the universe the property of mass. Finding it would confirm that physics has a reasonable understanding of how the universe works, and could lead to the ultimate goal of physics—finding one equation that explains how the universe works.
Proving that it doesn’t exist would be perhaps even more exciting. It would show that the universe holds even more mysteries be to uncovered. Whether it is found or not, the search for the Higgs particle will reveal a lot about the universe.
America was once in the lead in the search, but now it is about to give it up. On January 10, the Department of Energy decided to shut down the Tevatron—America’s largest particle accelerator—in September as scheduled. The High Energy Physics Advisory Panel had recommended that the Tevatron be run for another three years, if funding could be found.
The largest particle accelerator, and best hope of finding the Higgs, is now at cern in Europe. Known as the Large Hadron Collider (lhc), it is the world’s biggest particle accelerator. It is probably the most exciting science project in the world right now, and it is going on on the Franco-Swiss border.
Given the lack of funding, shutting down the Tevatron is probably the right thing to do. The lhc is bigger and better, and Fermilab, which operates the Tevatron, has more exciting projects on the go. The shame is that America doesn’t have anything to replace the Tevatron with.
It didn’t have to be this way. Supported by former President Ronald Reagan, the U.S. began work on a project that would have dwarfed the lhc, with the wonderful name of “the superconducting supercollider.”
The supercollider would have smashed particles together with almost three times the energy of the lhc. With 54 miles of tunnels, it would have been three times the size of the lhc. And it was scheduled to be completed in 1999, almost 10 years before the lhc.
But the project was shut down in 1993 as Congress decided it would be too expensive. “As a consequence,” wrote theoretical physicist Michio Kaku, “Congress guaranteed that leadership in advanced physics would pass from the U.S. to Europe.”
The Next Energy Breakthrough
Theoretical physics not practical enough for you? Europe also leads the way in the quest for fusion power—a way of generating electricity from hydrogen that would give off no harmful chemicals or radioactive waste. It is the ultimate clean energy. If it works, it will solve all the planet’s energy problems, including its dependence on fossil fuels.
One of the most promising fusion projects in the world is the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor. It is currently under construction, and fusion experiments are expected to begin in 2019. The U.S. funds 9 percent of the project, and some of its staff will be American. But the European Union is funding 45 percent of the project, and it is being built in France. Europe will reap the greatest rewards if it works.
If it works, Europe will be the world’s expert in fusion power.
America does have some promising projects. The National Ignition Facility in California has already made some progress in igniting fusion with lasers. But in the next few years a consortium of European nations will begin work on a laser facility with a much higher fusion potential, called the High-Powered Laser Energy Research facility.
“Indeed, fusion research facilities more modern than anything in the United States are either under construction or operating in China, Germany, Japan and South Korea,” wrote Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory director Stewart C. Prager in the New York Times. “The will and enthusiasm of governments in Asia to fill their energy needs with fusion, as soon as possible, is nearly palpable.”
Predicting where scientific advances will come from is notoriously tricky. The examples above may yield the next generation’s advances, but some will come from somewhere completely unexpected.
Perhaps a better way to judge America’s scientific future is to look at the education system—the new ideas and new scientists it is producing.
Here, the future looks even bleaker.
Far from being the leader in science, results of a 2009 worldwide standardized test found that America is barely above average when compared with other nations in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (oecd). It is below average in math. Shanghai came out on top (when China, not an oecd nation was included, and broken into several regions).
America is 18th out of the 24 industrialized nations in graduation rates. It is ranked 27th in the proportion of science and engineering degrees handed out.
A report by the National Science Foundation published on Nov. 19, 2010, found that the number of science and engineering articles published by U.S.-based authors in major peer-reviewed journals reached a plateau in the early 1990s. Funding increased, as did the number of science personnel, but the number of papers didn’t.
“Within the U.S. scientific community academic research is essential to the health of the nation’s research system,” wrote the Scientific American December last year. “The recent publication trends put its vitality in question with potential historic implications.”
The proportion of papers being written by Americans has been falling fast. In 1983, the U.S. produced 61 percent of the world’s total papers published by Physical Review, a leading scientific journal. In 2003, it submitted 29 percent.
Judging by the quality of education, the great scientists of the future will be coming from Europe and Asia.
The Price of Failure
Does it matter? If America is behind in a few prestigious projects, does it really make any difference? Yes, a lot.
Imagine if America had simply sat out the space race. We’d have no smoke detectors, cordless drills, cat scans or Teflon non-stick pans, to name just a few of the spin-off inventions. More importantly, the U.S. would have no satellite navigation or satellite photographs, and much of the advanced technology that makes America the most powerful nation in the world wouldn’t exist.
In the future, other nations will get their hands on those kinds of technologies first. That leads to big military and economic benefits.
America’s space program helped interest an entire generation in physics. Finally unraveling how the universe works, or discovering the answer to the world’s energy needs would give a similar boost to keen young minds pursuing these fields in whichever nation made the breakthrough. We can be almost certain, though, that that nation will not be America.
And science has an inspirational value that goes far beyond its material benefits.
Sputnik carried a message to the world far louder than any Soviet broadcast ever could. “Sputnik brought home that the Russians weren’t quite the backward oafs Americans had thought,” said a New York Times editorial published 50 years after Sputnik’s launch.
It was Russia’s way of trying to tell the world that communism worked, and worked better than America’s capitalism.
Now imagine if the next huge, once-in-a-lifetime scientific breakthrough comes from one of the many pan-European projects going on right now. It would be the clearest way, short of an American military defeat, to show the world that America is not the leading superpower it once was.
It would also be a propaganda coup for European federalists. Look what we accomplished by working together, they would say. United, we’re even stronger than the U.S.
America’s Next Flopnik
America’s knee-jerk solution is to throw more money at education. But that won’t fix it. Polish and Estonian students score about the same as Americans on standardized tests. But their nations spend half as much per student on education. The U.S. spent more money than any other nation in the study other than Luxembourg, but it came far from first place.
Why? America’s scientific success was a blessing from God, and now that blessing is being taken away. Deuteronomy 28:13 says:
And the Lord shall make thee the head, and not the tail; and thou shalt be above only, and thou shalt not be beneath; if that thou hearken unto the commandments of the Lord thy God, which I command thee this day, to observe and to do them.
The ancient Israelites disobeyed, but these blessings were passed on to their modern descendants, the peoples of Britain and America (see The United States and Britain in Prophecy for more information). For years, Britain and America led the world in science and technology. But Britain fell from that pedestal years ago, and America is following.
Britain and America’s domination of science and technology was the most important factor in putting these nations at the head of the world. The Industrial Revolution began in Britain, catapulting it to greatness. America’s technical skills made it the leading military and economic power in the world.
Part of that blessing came in the form of the British and American education systems. Here both nations once retained some godly principles such as discipline, hard work and respect for authority.
These principles are now gone. Throwing money at American education won’t fix it. It will just lead to another Flopnik—a waste of money that goes nowhere.
Only when America obeys God will the nation be the head again, and that includes in the fields of science and technology.
Britain and America did not become the leading scientific nations because of something special in their dna, or because of some spirit of ingenuity. It was a blessing from God.
There is a time coming very soon when the whole world will finally submit to Almighty God. Under His blessing and guidance a new renaissance of science will break out. God is not against science. He is a creator, and He is excited to see man create and discover more about His creation—as long as it isn’t used to destroy himself.
In this future, innovation won’t be wasted on war machines. Nations will not hide developments from other nations to keep them from getting ahead.
Working together, for the first time in all of history, mankind will unlock their true potential for scientific discovery.