Friday, February 26, 2010

Lost in Space

When I was a kid in the sixties, my friends and I were crazy about the NASA space program. Astronauts were our heroes, and my friend, Gary Benskin, wanted to be one when he grew up. He even built a model of the Gemini 4 space capsule, complete with astronaut Ed White floating outside it for the first American space walk.

Back then, during the Cold War, when the United States was competing with Russia in the "space race," every launch was a huge deal. My teacher would wheel a TV into our classroom so we could watch the live telecasts from Cape Canaveral. We studied astronomy and built "scale" models of the solar system. Even The Weekly Reader featured articles about space. I remember one story that included a photo of a test rocket that would be able to land on an airport runway instead of splashing down in the ocean. That, of course, was the space shuttle, which has dominated the space program since the last manned mission to the moon in December 1972 by Apollo 17 but is destined to be sidelined later this year.

I sometimes ask people what they think is the pinnacle of human history. Most don't have an answer, but when I tell them that for me, it is the Apollo 11 moon landing on July 20, 1969, they usually agree. Unfortunately, it has been all downhill since then. Sure, we have sent probes out to explore our solar system and beyond, and we have built some impressive space stations, but we have not revisited the moon in almost forty years. When I saw 2001: A Space Odyssey in 1968 ("Thank you, Arthur C. Clarke"), I imagined that the future would be just like that: shuttles whisking people between the earth and space, scientists colonizing the moon, and astronauts exploring deep space with the help of intelligent robots. Almost none of that has happened, and for me, that is the greatest unrealized dream and deepest disappointment of my life.

Now the Obama administration is scrapping the Constellation program, which would have put us back on the moon by 2020. The implication is that we would be better off putting our resources into planning a manned mission to Mars, but NASA authorities say that there are too many unknowns to be able to meet that same timeline, or any timeline for that matter, without the research and development that would have come out of the Constellation program. So the space program will be essentially operating without a long-range plan. For people my age, who had hoped to see man walk on Mars in our lifetimes, who had even dreamed of going there themselves one day, this is terrible news.

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