A Bittersweet Week For Our Space Program

Astronaut Jim Irwin salutes from the moon on Apollo 15. I have an autographed copy of this photo at home.

It has truly been a bittersweet week for our space program. On Wednesday, we commemorated the 42nd anniversary of mankind’s ultimate technological triumph (aside from the invention of air conditioning): the lunar landing. Our putting men on the moon and safely returning them home is a shining example of technological knowhow and American exceptionalism (with a little help from the German rocket scientists the US adopted).

In the wee, small hours of the next morning, the space shuttle program came to an end as Atlantis landed safely. For fifty years, space exploration has been an important part of the American fabric..if not always a priority. And now we have…nothing. 8,000 NASA employees will lose their jobs. There’s no clear vision for the future of American manned space flight. Last, but not least, to add practically profane insult to injury, our astronauts will have to rely on the Russians for rides to the International Space Station.

Yes, there’s much to be said about money in this time of contentious, difficult debates over debt and the economy. With so much technological innovationthat has been derived from space exploration…from CAT Scans and MRIs, to smoke detectors, to innovations in farming, to new technology for sunglasses…it’s hard not to see spaceflight as an

The final landing of the space shuttle program

investment in the future. Of course, the private sector can and should innovate and contribute to the future of space exploration, I think there’s something to be said for NASA (or some other organization, as brilliant astronaut Harrison Schmidt has suggested) to set the vision for American spaceflight. The thing is, I’ll go with the budget for space travel and exploration over bloated entitlement programs and aid to foreign nations who hate us any day. (Did I mention that thousands of people with highly specialized skill sets lost their jobs? Yeah…thought so.)

How can the United States possibly be willing to stand on the verge of relinquishing leadership in space exploration (and the scientific and technological breakthroughs that are sure to follow)? How can such a supposedly forward-thinking administration have so little vision for NASA? How can we inspire future engineers and mathematicians without the exciting prospect of manned exploration of space? As the Apollo program fades further and further into the vapor of history and the space shuttle programs becomes nothing but a memory, this week is so much more than bittersweet…it’s heartbreaking.