Thirty years ago, on April 12, 1981, I watched the first launch of the space shuttle. That morning, as Columbia lifted off around 6 a.m. Chicago time, I could just remember watching Apollo 17 — the last manned moon mission — with my parents nearly a decade before.
The shuttle, even at the dawn of its era, seemed a giant step backwards for the manned space program. It wouldn’t take us to other planets, and it was being sold as a glorified orbital bus. True, the concept of controlled manned landing seemed to hark back to the earliest dreams of the space program, but even as Columbia flew on that spring morning, the technology of the shuttle was already a decade old, and the cutting edge promise of cheap, reliable flight into Earth orbit never materialized. Five years later, as a college freshman, I watched the explosion of the Challenger, and like millions of Americans wondered if the glory era of U.S. space exploration was sealed with the deaths of the Challenger Seven.
Today, the 135th and final shuttle mission launched from Cape Canaveral. It marked not only the end of the expensive and limited space shuttle program, but the end of America’s manned space program. With Barack Obama canceling the Constellation Program last year, America has ended exactly 50 years of manned space flight, stretching back to Alan Shepard’s May 5, 1961 sub-orbital flight in Freedom 7. That half-century witnessed the triumph of American technological and industrial progress, including the capstone Apollo program.
Yet stop for a moment and consider that between Alan Shepard and the space shuttle, just two decades passed. From the very first steps at manned flight to landing on the moon to the concept of the reusable orbiter took only 20 years Since Columbia’s first flight in 1981, exactly thirty years, there have been no breakthroughs in manned space flight. And now, America has retired from the manned space game.
It doesn’t need to be pointed out that other nations are not giving up. Russia now has a monopoly on space travel, as the Wall Street Journal pointed out this morning, and China has proposed an ambitious scheme for a lunar program to reach the moon by 2025. From today, any American going into space will have to hitch a ride with the Russians, and one day we may well be sending our astronauts up on Chinese spacecraft.
There’s no question the manned space program has been extraordinarily expensive and in many cases wasteful. The average space shuttle launch was $450 million according to NASA. Arguments for abolishing or restructuring NASA are finding receptive ears on Capitol Hill and around the country.
But Barack Obama is wrong to end America’s manned space program. His narrowness of vision is of a part with numerous policies of his to narrow America’s horizons. Societies do not thrive when restricted by government regulation or a lack of leadership to tackle new challenges. They thrive when scientists, entrepreneurs, and ordinary citizens have a sense that the new and unknown is within their grasp, and when they are encouraged to reach to the stars. Waste and mistakes occur all the time, but there is a fundamental difference between spending money to pay back political supporters and spending money to push the boundaries of human knowledge and achievement. NASA may need to be rebuilt from the ground up, but surrendering the dream of manned exploration of space is certain to bring only a further sense that under this president, America is eager only to embrace mediocrity and a poverty of human spirit.
— Michael Auslin is the director of Japan studies at the American Enterprise Institute and the author of Pacific Cosmopolitans: A Cultural History of U.S.-Japan Relations (Harvard, 2011).