Saturday, July 9, 2011

So Now What?

Forty two years ago this month the first humans stepped onto the moon. That was during the first of six lunar landing missions between 1969 and 1972. It’s hard to believe we never returned. The next major NASA program was the space shuttle, which began ten years after the last lunar mission and will end its run later this month when Atlantis returns to earth.

Following the early space flights, especially the ones to the moon, are among my earliest and happiest childhood memories. I watched every launch live on television and followed the progress. I knew the names of the astronauts. Splash downs received plenty of media coverage and there were huge parades after several of the early flights. I was a space geek and I remember a lot of this stuff like it was yesterday.


Space flight became routine over the years, even though there were only 135 flights in the shuttle program. (Random fact: the Atlanta airport sees that many flights every two hours).

To those people who question the amount of money spent on space-related activities over the decades, I’d like to point out some of the consumer products developed or improved as a result of space flight: solar energy, cordless power tools, smoke detectors, home insulation, drinking water purification, scratch resistant lenses, flat panel televisions, freeze-dried food and, are you ready for this one, sports bras.

That’s all great but now what? What’s next?

The Gemini, Apollo and Space shuttle programs all were developed by people with vision and imagination. Problems were solved, obstacles overcome. Scientists and politicians, an odd alliance, dared to dream, challenge, predict and fund human exploration beyond our cozy atmosphere. Now there is no plan. A few entrepreneurs are working on commercial space flight and some scientists and government folks are tossing out ideas about a next generation of re-usable spacecraft but nothing will be ready to fly for years, maybe decades.

I just read an interesting article and interview with former shuttle astronaut Story Musgrave in which he blasts NASA and others for getting to the end of this program with no next step in the works. He also points out some of the failings of the original shuttle program concept. He says, "I think what the real problem is: Why are we so poor in our vision and so poor in our project management that we come to a point where it's reasonable to phase out the current program and we have no idea what the next one is? Washington has to stop doing that."

Click HERE to read the rest of the article.

One of my most vivid memories of the early space program activities is how it made us feel as a country. It united us and reminded us that we are a can-do society! Our enemy at the time was Russia and the Soviet Union and the United States was in a race to out-achieve in space flights … first flight, most orbits, first space walk, first human on the moon. We won that last one. Now we are partners with Russia in the International Space Station. They are no longer our enemy but now the pendulum has swung very far the other way ... we depend on them. That’s not a bad thing, but it doesn’t do much for our national pride and it is another example of how we are falling behind many other countries in science, technology and education.

It’s time for our elected leaders and potential leaders to get their heads out of their iPhones and polling numbers and look up to the sky.

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