If you were one of the few lucky enough to catch a glimpse of Atlantis in the night’s sky on its last journey back to earth early this morning you likely considered a thought common amongst millions of Americans- what lies ahead for the future of NASA’s manned space program?
The Atlantis landing at the Kennedy Space Center early this morning brought to a close nearly five decades of the United States’ exploration of the cosmos.
NASA’s shuttle program has enabled significant advancements and discoveries in science, medicine, and innovative technologies and importantly inspired millions of youth to believe in the American exceptionalism that makes the unthinkable a reality.
The Atlantis’ last mission into space and the retirement of NASA’s space shuttle program closes a remarkable chapter in American history. It would be logical to assume that, as we close the door on one of our nation’s greatest achievements, we prepare for the next chapter. Unfortunately, that is not the case- although, it could be.
The impressive Constellation program was on track to replace the shuttle program and would have enabled us to maintain our competitive edge in space and would have helped to sustain our defense capabilities. Unfortunately, personal political agendas interfered and as a result, the door was abruptly closed on Constellation.
While some Obama administration officials claim that the United States still has an ‘active’ manned space flight program, the reality is that we do not. To make this claim is a misrepresentation of the facts. For the first time in nearly 50 years, our country does not have the ability to put a human into space.
The nation that first put a man on the Moon and developed solid rocket motor technologies is on the verge of losing those capabilities for decades or longer.
The Constellation program, which included the Ares solid rocket along with the human-rated Orion Space Capsule, would have been well on the way by now to continuing to deliver U.S. astronauts to low earth orbit, and would have laid the foundation for more ambitious missions back to the moon and to Mars.
In lieu of developing a replacement for the shuttle program, ensuring that we do not cede our leadership in space to countries like Russia, India, and China, President Obama instead chose to divert funding in his budget from developing space flight technologies toward redundant climate change research.
When presidential science adviser John Holdren and NASA administrator Charles Bolden unveiled President Obama's new plan for space exploration it was greeted by strong opposition from Democrats and Republicans alike.
This consensus was born out of the united realization that the President’s plan was nothing more than a strategic retreat from space leadership.
To address concerns that the United States has no foreseeable capability to maintain its leadership in space, Obama said NASA’s manned space flight would be replaced with commercial programs.
Although this sounds great, and I support commercial free enterprise, there are currently no commercial programs that can put an astronaut in orbit, nor will there be for a decade or longer. The only proven capability that exists today is the Ares rocket system, as part of the original Constellation program.
Obama does not have a tangible plan for the future of manned space flight. He talks about laudable goals but there is no leadership at the highest levels to get us to space and ensure that we remain global leaders.
It is not enough to put NASA on a path that is merely sustainable. We must continue to lead for the next 50 years and not destroy the legacy of the last 50.
So what lies ahead? The United States has essentially established a contracted taxi service with Russia to transport our astronauts to the International Space Station. This will cost the U.S. at least $50 million per astronaut. Despite what Obama says, this is hardly an “active” manned space program.
For those who remember the launch of Sputnik, the idea that the U.S. space program is contingent upon ride sharing with the Russians is a tough pill to swallow. We essentially turned back the clocks more than 50 years to a time when Russia’s space capabilities outpaced ours.
Manned space exploration is one of our greatest achievements and it is disappointing that Obama has directed that his administration allow the sun to set on this proud American legacy.
Without an aggressive manned space flight program, which enabled so many important advancements in science and technology, we will be resigned to follow others in the international community rather than lead as we have for nearly half a century.
Rep. Rob Bishop is a Utah Republican.