In his speech at the John F. Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Thursday, President Obama discussed the cancellation of the $108 billion nasa project “Constellation,” which was geared to send men to the moon by 2020 and to Mars by 2030.
Several well-known figures in the nasa community have criticized the controversial cancellation. Twenty-seven retired astronauts (including three who have walked on the moon) and other nasa officials have criticized the move, saying the president is setting nasa on a course that is “wrong for our country.” They wrote, “One of the greatest fears of any generation is not leaving things better for the young people of the next. In the area of human space flight, we are about to realize that fear.”
Even Neil Armstrong, who generally goes out of his way to avoid the limelight, complained about the decision in an open letter to the president. The letter, which was also signed by Gene Cernan, the last man on the moon, and Jim Lovell, the commander of the Apollo 13 mission, called the cancellation of the project “devastating.” Armstrong wrote (emphasis mine),
For the United States, the leading space-faring nation for nearly half a century, to be without carriage to low Earth orbit and with no human exploration capability to go beyond Earth orbit for an indeterminate time into the future, destines our nation to become one of second- or even third-rate stature.
While the president’s plan envisages humans traveling away from Earth and perhaps toward Mars at some time in the future, the lack of developed rockets and spacecraft will assure that ability will not be available for many years.
Without the skill and experience that actual spacecraft operation provides, the usa is far too likely to be on a long downhill slide to mediocrity.
America must decide if it wishes to remain a leader in space. If it does, we should institute a program which will give us the very best chance of achieving that goal.
Armstrong also noted that, due to the cancellation, America’s only road to space now travels through Russia—and at a cost of $50 million per seat.
In his speech, President Obama said America must think in a new direction. “The challenges facing our space program are different, and our imperatives for this program are different, than in decades past,” he said. “We’re no longer racing against an adversary. We’re no longer competing to achieve a singular goal like reaching the moon. In fact, what was once a global competition has long since become a global collaboration.”
Other nations no doubt see it as an opportunity to get ahead of the United States in the race for space. China, for example, just announced its plan to launch a large spacecraft before the end of the decade. “As nasa’s wings are clipped, our competitors soar,” the Washington Times wrote.
The U.S. space agency even had to sign a $340 million deal with Russia on April 6 to transport astronauts to the International Space Station through 2014. By then, China intends to conduct an ambitious schedule of flights with its Shenzhou spacecraft. It doesn’t take much imagination to envision the day when nasa must pay its Asian competitor large sums for American astronauts to ride into orbit as passengers. Thanks to Mr. Obama, the United States will be dependent on Russia and China for space travel.
The space program is a great symbol of the American spirit of achievement. The day this nation cedes the conquest of space to others is the day we admit that we have forfeited our competitive exceptionalism.
Despite President Obama’s promise to “leap into the future,” his plans will ultimately lead nasa onto a trajectory of decline. Alabama Sen. Richard Shelby called Mr. Obama’s plan “visionless.”
After the 40th anniversary of the lunar landing, Joel Hilliker wrote about the dearth of visionary Americans who once made the journey into space possible. He wrote, “The shift of influence from our visionary minority to its complacent majority precisely parallels America’s loss of national power. This was prophesied to occur just before the end of this age.” ▪