Thirty nine years ago today, something remarkable happened, unprecedented in the annals of human history. Thirty nine years ago, a man walked the face of the moon.
With the launch of Sputnik in 1957, the Soviet Union put the first man-made object into orbit. Alarmed by the military implications of this act, the United States was determined not to let it go unchallenged; indeed, the United States was determined that if mankind was going to go into space that we would lead the way, not follow along behind someone else.
Driven by visions of Soviet bases on the moon raining down nuclear destruction, and the spectre of the United States being dictated to by a hostile military power without recourse, President Kennedy set an ambitious goal; to, by the end of the decade, land a man on the moon and return him safely back to Earth. His untimely death at the hands of an assassin in 1963 cemented this vision in the national will, and on 20 July 1969, Neil Armstrong became the first human to set foot on lunar soil.
People cheered. Champaign corks popped. We planted the U.S. flag. But unlike explorers of the past, we didn’t claim the moon as the exclusive property of the United States of America, despite the fact that we were the only country at the time (or since, up to now) that could make the trip. Instead, we left a plaque that read “Here men from the planet Earth first set foot upon the Moon July 1969 A.D. We came in peace for all mankind.”
NASA had ambitious plans for scientific research stations, and eventually lunar mining and colonization. Science fiction abounded with stories of such. But the public and our politicians lost interest; we had other problems and “better” things to spend our money on here on Earth. Why spend millions to bring home a few pounds of rocks? We have plenty of rocks here already!
President Kennedy had a vision of the future and set a goal. The goal was reached; but President Richard Nixon, fighting an unpopular war in Vietnam and beset with his own problems was no President Kennedy and his vision of the future did not include much in the way of exploring space. So a little more than three years after we flew our first mission we flew our last. Figuratively, we picked up our Tang and our Teflon (both developed as part of the space effort) and went home; and no one has set foot on the moon since.
Since then we have dillied and dallied, and dabbled in space. And while we have done so, the rest of the world has caught up.
We’ve put up satellites and they have been good investments. Today most people take weather satellites pretty much for granted; ditto with communications satellites. Entire businesses and industries are built around the capability to launch satellites into orbit. OnStar, for example, would not be possible without the constellation of GPS satellites orbiting the Earth.
Satellites have become commodity items, albeit rather expensive ones, necessary to our modern society. And the United States is by no means the only country capable of building and launching them.
Whereas the United States was once the place to go to launch satellites, today it’s not so much. We launch many of our own satellites, particularly those connected with the military. For the most part, however, the rest of the world goes elsewhere; to countries like Russia, China, India, and Arianespace, a privately-owned French company which has signed over 290 launch contracts with 65 international operators and controls more than 50 percent of the world market for launching satellites to geostationary transfer orbit (GTO). South Korea, Taiwan, and Brazil are planning to enter the market as well, with both South Korea and Brazil developing their own indigenous rocket and satellite-building capabilities.
We have built unmanned space probes and sent them to the outermost reaches of the solar system. Indeed, several are on their way out of the solar system and on to interstellar space. We have taken amazing high-resolution pictures of every planet in our solar system, and landed probes on Mars and Venus. We have sampled the atmosphere of Titan.
While these are laudable achievements, once again, others are now capable of doing the same. Japan and China, for example, both have satellites in orbit around the moon. India and Russia are working on doing so as well. The European Space Agency has sent a probe to Mars.
On the manned side of the house, we have the International Space Station (ISS), the bulk of which we have financed, and the construction of which has depended on the availability of our Space Shuttle.
Resupply missions however have, to date, primarily been accomplished using unmanned Russian Progress spacecraft. On 9 March 2008 the European Space Agency entered the picture, flying a resupply mission using a spacecraft of their own design, called the Automated Transfer Vehicle. The ATV has three times the capacity of the Progress spacecraft and is launched on an Ariane 5 launch vehicle.
And while the Shuttle has been used to boost much of the equipment into space to build the station, many of the modules comprising the station have been built elsewhere; including Russia, Europe, and Japan.
Although astronauts are transferred to and from the ISS on shuttle missions, many also make the trip on the Russian Soyuz. Indeed, after the Columbia went down and the remaining shuttle fleet was grounded, Soyuz was the only way personnel could be transferred.
That may not last long however. China has orbited astronauts twice now, and has a third mission planned for October 2008. It may not be long before Chinese spacecraft are calling at the ISS.
And where is the United States? Despite President Bush’s ambitious vision of renewed manned moon and ultimately Mars missions (the only president we have had since Kennedy with any sort of vision for America’s manned space program by the way), the flame appears to be guttering out. The program was approved by Congress, but with no significant increase in NASA’s budget, our commitment seems to be, in Texan terms, “all hat and no cattle.”
After 2010, when the Shuttle fleet is supposed to be retired (and it will be retired, at least as of now, since there is no money in the budget for its continued operation), the United States will be faced with a five year gap during which we will be unable to access the space station we have spent billions of taxpayer dollars on without having to go hat in hand to Russia or possibly China to book a flight on their spacecraft. And that is assuming that NASA’s budget remains intact in the upcoming years.
While NASA’s annual budget of $17 billion seems large, in reality it constitutes less than 0.6 percent of the entire federal budget. And though it may seem trite to mention it, $17 billion doesn’t buy as much today as it used to; in inflation adjusted terms it is 20 percent less than NASA’s budget was in 1992. Even if additional funding becomes available, the timetable for a new manned spacecraft can only be advanced so far – possibly to 2013, still leaving a rather large three year gap. The solution of course would be to extend Shuttle’s tenure for an additional 3-5 years. But that costs money as well – money which then would not be available to pay for the new spacecraft; unless the budget is increased.
Meanwhile other countries with more vision than we seem to possess are headed for space full-tilt. China, for example, having orbited its first astronaut in 2003, plans to land their first astronaut on the moon in 2017 – a full three years before our planned return (which may or may not materialize). An ambitious goal, and one that may slip; it is however a serious commitment on their part and one that we cannot assume they will simply set aside. According to a recent Washington Post article, “China has decided that space exploration, and its commercial and military purposes, are as important as the seas once were to the British Empire and air power was (and still is) to the United States.” 
Why do we care, you may ask? If other countries want to waste their money in space, let them! We have more important problems to take care of here on Earth. Besides, robots get better and better every year. Why waste money sending people out exploring when machines can do it cheaper and safer?
Why indeed? I am sure there were those who once asked “why spend national treasure going to the new world? Everything we need in life can be found in England (or Spain, or France, or Portugal, or – take your pick…) anyway.” “Why invest in that new-fangled airplane thing. If man were meant to fly, he’d have wings!” “I doubt much will ever come of the automobile. Where are you going to drive it anyway? Give me an honest horse any day!”
If the leaders of China are correct (and I believe they are), our decision to neglect our original commanding lead in space and our current unwillingness to commit the necessary money to even keep up with everyone else may well be seen as the turning point beginning the decline of the United States as a world power.
Our apparent national apathy about everything, from producing our own energy to making our own clothes gives the appearance of a nation in decline. Our apparent willingness to cede our leadership in space to anyone willing to pick up the mantle without any apparent concern as to the ramifications of that action merely underscores that appearance.
Investment in space today is vital to the success of our nation in the future. It is where the industries of tomorrow will be spawned. It is where the wealth of tomorrow will be generated. The country or countries that control space will be the major powers of tomorrow, just as the countries that controlled the seas once were, and the country that controls the air is today.
Great wealth flows to the countries with great vision. In this manner we built a great nation unparalleled in the history of the world. As vision fails, so does the nation. Witness Greece, Rome, Great Britain – the list goes on and on. How many times in the history of the world has a nation risen to the top of the heap, and after sliding back, risen yet again? I can’t think of any. Most such are now pale reflections of what they once were; no longer places where things happen, but, rather, places that watch things happen. Some, sadly enough, are places that wonder what happened.
I don’t necessarily expect the sense of wonder I felt the first time I saw Neil Armstrong walk on the moon. After all, I don’t feel a sense of wonder every time I see an aircraft take off, or a car drive along the road, both of which caused a sense of wonder for some the first time they saw one. But it is hard to imagine where our country would be today if we had decided as a nation not to invest in either. And whereas the government had little to do with private industry building and marketing the automobile, it had a great deal to do with the birth and success of aviation here and around the world.
The successes and spinoffs from that one event at Kittyhawk in 1903 have had an incalculable effect on this country. Indeed, not only would we not be where we are if we had turned our back on it, one could make the argument that we, as a free nation called the United States of America, might not even exist.
Where is the vision? Where is the drive? Do we care any longer? Or are we simply content, like an old man, to sit on our bench, suck on our gums, and reminisce on what we once were, back when we were young…