Now that Atlantis has ended the final Space Shuttle mission, we are left to wonder: Now what? For the first time in my lifetime, we have nothing to look forward to when it comes to space exploration.
I have never been a fan of the Shuttle program. It always seemed like just a "placeholder" kind of exercise. Low-Earth Orbit missions have been done since the Mercury program back in the early 1960's. And Mercury and Gemini were the building blocks upon which the Apollo moon missions were built. Docking practice, spacewalks and vehicle maneuvers weren't glorious--but at least you felt like it was getting us closer to a major goal. The Shuttle going to the International Space Station to drop off supplies and pick up astronauts--where was that getting us.
I knew things were going to be tough for NASA when President Bush announced the goal of returning to the Moon as a stepping stone to manned missions to Mars--and that was met with silence, ignorance or in some circles--derision. I'm sure that if President Obama had announced such a goal while running for election in 2008 the masses would have been orgasmic--immediately setting to work on their "Yes We Can Go To Mars" posters and bumper stickers. But President Obama would never say anything like that--because he is not about the US being better than any other country in world.
When you think about it, the space program has always been a symbol of the strength of the United States. It wasn't Nigeria or India or even Great Britain that was sending men into space--because their governments and economies weren't nearly as successful as ours. Yes, the Soviet Union had the early lead on us--but their space program came at the expense of their economy--not as a building block for it. Once Americans decided we were going to be the first to the Moon--the Russians had no chance to beat us.
But now, we don't have that kind of desire to be the best. Yes, it is "incredibly expensive"--NASA takes up about one-half of one cent of every Federal Tax dollar you and I pay--but what other government function inspires you the way space travel does? Maybe having high-speed internet service for every American captures your imagination, or watching everyone walk into a hospital to have taxpayer-funded procedures brings a tear to your eye. Perhaps today's little kids grow up dreaming of driving high-speed trains between Chicago and Minneapolis the way I yearned to rocket into space.
The Chinese say they will put men on the Moon by the end of this decade (sound like a familiar promise?) and they want to be first to Mars. I know that Neil Armstrong took that first lunar step "for Mankind"--but he still planted an American flag up there. And I want the Stars and Stripes to always be that first flag--where ever man takes that first step. It's part of what makes America truly great.