Space exploration on the cheap: America misses its moment

Where there is no vision the people perish.
— Proverbs 29:18


It was a perfect Sunday morning here in the nation’s capital. Sun shining. Sitting on my porch. Reading my newspaper. Even with that overpriced cup of coffee in hand, it was still perfect.

It doesn’t get any better, for a lifelong news junkie, than indulging the old-fashioned habit of flipping through the real, physical pages of the morning paper, taking a break from the weekday requirements of point and click.

In between those high-priced sips, there was plenty of news to digest, too. Some well-placed stories about the Michigan/Florida delegate food fight at that Democratic Rules Committee meeting. Then there was a sobering story about seven violent overnight killings that had taken place in the span of nine hours in the District of Columbia.

Some highlights of a George W. Bush commencement speech at Furman University in South Carolina and also a really interesting report about the state of race relations in Utah.

Further inside the paper, there were some follow-up blurbs about that crane collapse in New York City, the tornado in Indianapolis, the train crash outside Boston, and how the remaining 2005 Katrina/Rita-displaced hurricane survivors were finally being moved out of their FEMA trailers and into apartments. Just in time for the start of the 2008 hurricane season.

Then, as I turned to Page 5, I stumbled upon one of those obscure articles that catch your attention from time to time. You know, the kind that make you say eloquently to yourself: “Huh? What?”

“Shuttle loses debris on launch, but NASA predicts no problem,” the headline proclaimed.

No doubt, good news about that debris and everything. And I am certainly glad that my local paper, The Washington Post, saw fit to fill me in on the details. But as a lifelong, card-carrying space buff, I have a little confession to make. I had no idea we even launched the shuttle Discovery the night before.

Continuing the confessional:

When I was a college student in Florida, my fellow space buffers and I would regularly hitch rides to Cocoa Beach so that we could experience the spectacular, awe-inspiring space launches firsthand. We would spend hours trekking and securing our front-row seats to literally the greatest show on the face of the earth.

It wasn’t just the bone-rumbling, mind-numbing, surround-sound experience of the spectacle, either. With each launch, we were seeing, in real time, the nation, our nation, making history. And there was no doubt. We were the standard. Even with our earthbound imperfections, we knew we were the standard when it came to the science of spaceflight.

All achieved by the clear vision laid out by President Kennedy when he told the nation that our goal was to be on the moon by the end of the 1960s. By comparison, today’s lack of political leadership when it comes to space exploration is embarrassing.

Don’t get me wrong. This is not a Republican or a Democratic matter. And politicians are not the only ones to blame. We the people, who have not exactly demanded excellence from our government over the past few decades, share a big part of the blame as well. Maybe even most of the blame.

I take my share. Instead of hitchhiking down A1A in the middle of the night so I can see my inspiring government in action, now I keep up (barely) with the anemic, cash-starved space program by stumbling upon stories buried above the box listing the Sunday talk show guests and right next to a giant Macy’s advertisement hawking something called Primordiale Skin Recharge Moisturizer with SPF 15.

Sure, there are “plans” to establish a base on the moon, and maybe someday send a crew to Mars, but we don’t really have our hearts in it. We are going through the motions, doing it on the cheap, and without any articulated vision of why we should explore the heavens in the first place.

I don’t think most Americans, space buffers or not, are yet quite aware that for all intents and purposes our manned space program will go dark between 2010 and 2015, the period of time between the shuttle’s final flight and the day we get our next generation of rockets built.

During that time we will need to rely on the Russians so we can hitch rides into space and minimally keep up with our partnering obligations to the Space Station. Unbelievable.

Thankfully, some members of Congress are agitating for more NASA dollars to try to cut down that five-year non-flight window to two, maybe three years. But shame on us all for being in this position in the first place.

You can reach Jim Mills at jmills@thehill.com.