Shutting the new frontier 4

The most innovative nation in all the world and all history is the United States of America. One of its greatest characteristics – the product of its liberty – has long been its driving energy to look forward and upward, to reach new heights, to achieve ever more and better understanding of our universe. In nothing was this vision proved so spectacularly as in the exploration of space, the landing of men on the moon, the search with ingeniously devised spacecraft, loaded with technological marvels, ever further through the galaxy.

The leftists now in control don’t like it.

Charles Krauthammer writes:

Within months, Russia will have a monopoly on rides into space.

By the end of this year, there will be no shuttle, no U.S. manned space program, no way for us to get into space. We’re not talking about Mars or the moon here. We’re talking about low-Earth orbit, which the U.S. has dominated for nearly half a century and from which it is now retiring with nary a whimper.

Our absence from low-Earth orbit was meant to last a few years, the interval between the retirement of the fatally fragile space shuttle and its replacement with the Constellation program (Ares booster, Orion capsule, Altair lunar lander) to take astronauts more cheaply and safely back to space.

But the Obama 2011 budget kills Constellation. Instead, we shall have nothing. For the first time since John Glenn flew in 1962, the U.S. will have no access of its own for humans into space — and no prospect of getting there in the foreseeable future.

Of course, the administration presents the abdication as a great leap forward: Launching humans will now be turned over to the private sector, while NASA’s efforts will be directed toward landing on Mars.

This is nonsense. It would be swell for private companies to take over launching astronauts. But they cannot do it. It’s too expensive. It’s too experimental. And the safety standards for actually getting people up and down reliably are just unreachably high.

Sure, decades from now there will be a robust private space-travel industry. But that is a long time. In the interim, space will be owned by Russia and then China. The president waxes seriously nationalist at the thought of China or India surpassing us in speculative “clean energy.” Yet he is quite prepared to gratuitously give up our spectacular lead in human space exploration.

As for Mars, more nonsense. Mars is just too far away. And how do you get there without the stepping stones of Ares and Orion? If we can’t afford an Ares rocket to get us into orbit and to the moon, how long will it take to develop a revolutionary new propulsion system that will take us not a quarter-million miles but 35 million miles?

Of course, the whole Mars project as substitute for the moon is simply a ruse. It’s like the classic bait-and-switch for high-tech military spending: Kill the doable in the name of some distant sophisticated alternative, which either never gets developed or is simply killed later in the name of yet another, even more sophisticated alternative of the further future. …

Moreover, there is the question of seriousness. When John F. Kennedy pledged to go to the moon, he meant it. He had an intense personal commitment to the enterprise. He delivered speeches remembered to this day. He dedicated astronomical sums to make it happen.

At the peak of the Apollo program, NASA was consuming almost 4 percent of the federal budget, which in terms of the 2011 budget is about $150 billion. Today the manned space program will die for want of $3 billion a year — 1/300th of last year’s stimulus package with its endless make-work projects that will leave not a trace on the national consciousness.

As for President Obama’s commitment to beyond-lunar space: Has he given a single speech, devoted an iota of political capital to it?

Obama’s NASA budget perfectly captures the difference in spirit between Kennedy’s liberalism and Obama’s. Kennedy’s was an expansive, bold, outward-looking summons. Obama’s is a constricted inward-looking call to retreat.

Fifty years ago, Kennedy opened the New Frontier. Obama has just shut it.

  • aufan59

    A couple questions:

    I will agree that space will eventually be a war frontier. However does the United State military not dominate the airspace even though private companies manufacture our fighter jets? I'm not sure what is wrong with the private sector competing for rockets to launch us into orbit.

    For war purposes, do we need to put man into orbit? We kill Afghan's with drones quite successfully, and our space program is able to remotely operate space probes that are a billion miles away. If the private sector can put cargo into orbit (which they already have), then what is the big fuss? There is no reason to put a man into orbit so he can push a button or move a joystick that can be pushed or moved on earth.

    The America private sector will find a better way to get cargo (and humans, if deemed necessary) into orbit than a government agency. NASA still gets government funding specifically to subsidize commercial earth-to-orbit vehicles.

    “Advancement, ambition, vision, exploration, discovery, a taste for the new, a delight in wider horizons, an expansion of imaginative possibilities are necessary to the greatness of the human race – would you not agree?”

    Agree. However we overcame the technological hurdle to put a man on the moon 40 years ago. I doubt we would see the same technological jump if we do it again. Our orbiting telescopes and unmanned probes have told us more about the universe than any mission to the moon.

    Meanwhile there are an infinite number of things left undiscovered here on earth, which are cheaper to research and provide more tangible benefits.

  • Jillian Becker

    aufan59 – thank you for your comment and the questions you raise.

    The benefits of space research are numerous. In spinoffs alone there are many that are beneficial for everyday life, notably in the spheres of industry (specially computer technology), medicine, and terrestrial transportation. You can find long lists of them on the internet.

    Even more importantly (I think), it advances Cosmology: that is to say, REAL SCIENCE, as opposed to the alchemy that is going on in the field of 'climate change'. (And yes, 'sustainable fusion' would be good too.)

    Then there are the uses of space technology for DEFENSE. That's a hugely important reason to pursue it.

    The psychological significance should not be underestimated. It is not a banal matter of rivalry with Russia and China as, for instance, for an ephemeral trade advantage. Advancement, ambition, vision, exploration, discovery, a taste for the new, a delight in wider horizons, an expansion of imaginative possibilities are necessary to the greatness of the human race – would you not agree? All that has been for centuries now an inspiration to the genius of America. It would be a tragedy for Americans to give it up, to take their eyes off the future. There is so much concentration on the miseries of existence, especially in Europe, the very fact that Americans prefer to look up at the stars can lift the heart of all humankind.

    The cost? In my view space exploration is far more worth spending money on than social security, bad education, repulsive art, or foreign aid. (With which statement I am perhaps opening a whole new thread for debate.)

  • aufan59

    Just curious, what do we currently gain from space travel? It is currently too dangerous and too expensive to send a man into orbit, and the only advantage of doing so is orbital repairs on our space telescopes, and ultra-low-gravity research.

    If China and Russia own space for the next couple decades, what advantage do they have over us? If we want to participate in a technology war with China and Russia, it should be towards development of sustainable fusion. That has tangible benefits for all of man kind, while space travel is seemingly an international pissing contest.

    • V for Vendetta

      Well the use of space as the fourth theatre of military tactical superiority after Land, Sea, and Air seems to me to be extremely important. Space based weapons will dominate the future. If a single power -not the US- gains control of space – this is a serious game changer. Space research is so amazing because it pieces together all of the most advanced technology available. It is the biggest cross-disiplinary science and engineering summit in existence. The infrastructure in space must be public – as any potential gains from the endeavour are long term. That means companies with the exemption of the visionary billionaire will not invest in space. Only once a cheap and reliable way of getting into space (space elevator?) is public and available can the future development of space be left to corporations. Obama is the opposite of hope. He has abandoned the future and the hope that space represents. Oh how the mighty have fallen. I wonder what people looking back at the history of the US will say when it after the cold war being the single super power squandered it's power – traded it for toys from china, to become mid grade power in the near future. Of course that is what happens when corporate interests take over a country. They don't care about the people of their own country. They only seek quick profits and sell their own people and country to china. No the US had enormous potential just 20 years ago when I was first born. During that time the decline has been amazing.