Missing out on outer space

In December 1972, America abandoned the moon. With the completion of the Skylab missions two years later, and after a brief rendezvous with the Russians, our nation’s human space effort was grounded. We had won the battle for space and demonstrated the power of a free people, but the Cold War, the emergence of global terrorism, an oil embargo, civil rights and other issues competed for our nation’s attention and priorities.

With the shuttle program on the distant horizon, the legacy of our first decade was surrendered and many of our leaders would move on. The most technically proficient and imaginative space team in the world would disperse. America had lost its will to explore.

Our nation now faces a similar gap in manned space flight if our political and congressional leaders don’t act soon. In 2010, after completing the assembly of the space station and restoring the Hubble space telescope to many more years of scientific achievement, the shuttle fleet will stand down, initiating a more than four-year hiatus in U.S. human access to space.

The American space effort will be stalled and U.S. space leadership will be running out of time. The American astronauts that will fly to the space station will be totally dependent upon Russia, Japan and Europe. We will have to rely on the generosity and goodwill of other nations to maintain a minimal presence in space, as America will be grounded.

Making things worse, Congress has voted to slash NASA’s Human Spaceflight Account nearly $700 million from the authorized level of the last fiscal year. President Bush has further compounded the problem with a request for the next fiscal year that is $1.4 billion less than the congressionally authorized level.

As a result, the four-years-plus gap between the shuttle and the new Constellation program has already increased by at least six months. And that assumes no more surprises like the hurricane damage to NASA installations in Florida and New Orleans in 2005. The millions needed for those repairs came right out of NASA’s program budgets — the same budgets that will now be used to pay other countries for our own human access to space.

To call the nation’s attention to this crisis in space, the leaders of nearly two dozen of America’s top high-tech and aerospace companies have put their differences and competitive instincts aside. They have signed a joint challenge to Congress to put partisan bickering aside for the nation’s greater good — to return U.S. space access to where it belongs: in the hands of our nation’s own space workers, not those of foreign lands.

Shifts in the world’s geopolitical climate are too unpredictable to rely on our allies for access to space — some who clearly intend on challenging our space leadership and whose governments are willing to make the necessary investments to be successful in space exploration.

I challenge Congress to heed the call from our industry leaders and the workers they employ. Give NASA what it needs to keep America first in space.

Kranz was flight director for the Apollo moon missions and is author of “Failure is not an Option.”