When the space shuttle Atlantis touches down in Florida on Thursday, the United States will no longer possess the technology to launch a human being into space, nor will it have any vehicle on the drawing board capable of doing so.
Nearly eight years ago, President George Bush instructed NASA to finish the space station and retire the shuttle fleet. The aim was to eliminate the pricey shuttle program, as well as create a new human-rated vehicle that was safer and cheaper to maintain. The Constellation Program borrowed on the fundamentals established during Apollo but was to be endowed with exponentially advanced technology. Comprised of safer, cheaper rockets, Constellation was going to ferry astronauts back to the Moon where habitable bases would be established, vanguards for later putting human bootprints on the scarlet soil of Mars. However, the Bush Administration never funded the program as promised, ensuring it was over-budget and behind schedule. The Obama Administration, desperate to find high profile budget cuts in the midst of the worst recession since the Great Depression, deemed the project too expensive and killed it altogether. Many lawmakers, industry executives and former astronauts opposed the White House’s decision, claiming that American leadership in space would end if Constellation was scrapped.
Throughout the history of the U.S. manned space program, each mission dovetailed into the next. With the cancellation of Constellation, NASA no longer has any large, long-term goals for which the agency can truly reach. The retirement of the space shuttle, a bittersweet event no matter the future, is, for many, now merely bitter.
President Obama proposed a controversial new plan that would completely rewrite NASA’s mission—the development of commercial spacecraft that NASA could rent. While the administration still speaks of landing humans on asteroids and even Mars, the vision is vague and formless at best, more imprecise dream than tangible plan.
The shut down of the shuttle strikes many as ill-timed. Why retire one vehicle before a replacement is ready to take its place? While there was always going to be a gap of several years between the end of the shuttle era and the beginning of Constellation, that gap is now indefinite. The International Space Station (ISS) is due to be de-orbited in 2020. Once that occurs, there will be no human presence in space whatsoever. (At least in the West—China, which became the third country to join the elite group of space faring nations in 2003 when it launched its first “Taikonaut” into orbit, has announced that it will put a man on the moon by the end of this decade).
For now, NASA will buy ISS-bound astronauts room on Russian Soyuz capsules at a cost of $60 million a seat, a concession with NASA’s former Cold War competitor that rubs many at the agency the wrong way. Most disturbing to some is that the policy, regardless of its efficacy or probability, is myopic to not only the countless advantages of a muscular space program, but also the catastrophic brain drain such a lapse will inevitably create.
It is often asked, why are we spending so much money on space when we have plenty of problems right here on Earth? Shouldn't we take the money we currently spend on space and use it a bit closer to home? The answer is two fold: we are actually spending very little on space and nearly every cent benefits us right here on Earth.
Think of the U.S. budget as your average computer hard drive. Should it become necessary to free up room, your first priority would be those items that gobble up the most space—videos and photographs, for instance. You don’t first go in search of Word documents because they take up so little space that you’d have to delete a massive amount just to make a dent. In terms of the U.S. budget, NASA is a Word document.
In some ways, NASA is a victim of its own success. Because its return on investment is so high, public perception of NASA’s budget has always been drastically inflated. A 1997 poll reported that most Americans assumed NASA’s total percentage of the U.S. budget to be 20 percent. The truth is that NASA constitutes just .4 percent of the total U.S. budget. Not even half a penny on the dollar. Americans spent more on pet food and Chapstick every year. While a 2011 operating budget of $18.7 billion may sound like and indeed be a lot of money, it is a drop in the bucket compared to that of the Department of Defense (928.5 billion), health care (898 billion), pensions (787.6 billion), welfare (464.6 billion), education (140.9 billion) or transportation (104.2 billion).
With that .4 percent, NASA funds the space shuttle, the ISS, deep space probes, Martian rovers, space telescopes like Hubble, all its planetary research and much more. But NASA does far more than just basic science and exploration. It improves our standard of living, makes our lives easier, safer, more convenient, healthier and even more enjoyable. Most people are completely unaware of the products they use every day that had their origins in the space program. Consider the following list: cell phones, GPS, microwaves, satellite television, modern weather forecasting, cordless tools, artificial heart pumps, water purification systems, LASER eye surgery, fire retardant materials, advanced rescue tools, infrared cameras, enhanced prosthetics and literally hundreds of other products.
Isn’t that worth half a penny?
The implosion of the space program means the loss of nearly 10,000 jobs. But while the livelihoods of thousands should disturb every citizen, more disturbing is the disintegration of the highly skilled workforce that goes along with it. Thanks primarily to the sheer gravimetric pull of NASA’s wide-ranging and comprehensive research and development, the United States has maintained a place of scientific, technological and research dominance unmatched since WWII. Apollo 11 was a technological leap forward unparalleled in the history of humankind. It created an innovative undertow that sucked all of science and technology right along with it. NASA, by its very nature, created an atmosphere of cross-pollination in which numerous scientific disciplines from engineering, chemistry and biology to physics, astronomy and geology flourished alongside each other. This synergy led to better technologies which in turn generated countless advances. The vacuum left by the aerospace brain drain will have ramifications this country may not perceive for decades.
A 2009 study by the Organization for Economic Cooperation & Development ranked the United States 25th among 34 countries in math and science—the first stage of an intellectual black hole beginning to be reflected in companies and labs across the country. Historically, NASA has been a beacon of inspiration for schoolchildren. Without its siren call, children and the adults they become lose one of the most profound drivers of our country's scientific enterprise. If the success of America’s early space program paved the way for unprecedented wealth and prosperity, then its loss will only exacerbate the rapidity with which America is falling behind the rest of the industrialized world. The very things that drive the engines of our economic growth are being eroded, and with it the standard of living Americans have come to both enjoy and expect. We've done more than create a world that is incapable of running without advanced technology. We're ensuring the next generation will not understand it or comprehend how it can be maintained.
Getting NASA’s human space flight team operational again is akin to pushing a massive boulder up a steep hill from a dead stop. The president's dissenters are not, strictly speaking, against private industry taking on a greater burden in space, but rather feel that it is far too early to make such a transition. Two private companies, Orbital Sciences Corporation and entrepreneur Elon Musk’s SpaceX, are currently constructing unmanned cargo vehicles to take over where the shuttle leaves off. However, Orbital's Taurus II rocket has not yet had its first test flight and SpaceX's Falcon rockets have met with limited success thus far, some exploding on the launch pad or failing in mid-flight. Such setbacks are to be expected and are indicative of both the complex nature and steep learning curve of rocket science. Fans of history will recall the catastrophic mechanical mishaps of NASA’s early days. But these are precisely the sorts of bugs that should be ironed out before deciding to turn over the reins of space to private industry.
Currently, there is little hunger, either among the public or its leaders, to do great things in space. While the technology to return to the Moon and push on to Mars is available, the passion to build and use it has evaporated. Dreams of breaching the final frontier have withered and atrophied. Humanity, it seems, is no longer interested in being an exploratory species. NASA, always a beacon of humankind’s ravenous appetite for new discoveries and species self-improvement is in danger of death by apathy and neglect.
Brandon Fibbs is married to NASA Public Affairs Officer and Social Media Manager Stephanie Schierholz. He met his wife in Colorado Springs when she was the Director of Communications for the Space Foundation. He has been lucky enough to see multiple shuttle launches and get unprecedented access to NASA's facilities for this story. When he's not writing about film, chances are it's about space and science. The opinions expressed here are his.