Lowering Our Sights

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The Space Shuttle Discovery is scheduled to lift off this week in one of the final three missions of the Shuttle program. Once the Shuttles are mothballed and shipped off to the museums, the United States will have no way of delivering its own into space, at least not for the foreseeable future. Instead, U.S. astronauts will fly on Russian rockets, while NASA tries to leverage commercial space assets. Most Americans either don’t care or don’t know about the nation’s looming self-imposed exile from space. That will change as Russia, China and others surge ahead in space—and America lowers its sights.

To be sure, there’s plenty of blame to go around for this predicament. For decades, policymakers of both parties and the public at large shrugged at the manmade miracle of space flight, failed to appreciate the nation’s reliance on space for everyday life, and failed to invest in or plan for post-Shuttle space capabilities. For example, when the Ares I-X rocket was tested in October 2009, it marked the first new crew-capable spacecraft unveiled by NASA in 30 years.

Washington’s benign neglect of NASA and space began to change in 2004, when President George W. Bush announced a plan to use the best of the Shuttle and Apollo programs in developing a new system—known as Constellation—to carry Americans beyond low-earth orbit and deep into space. The plan called for retiring the remaining Space Shuttles—Discovery, Endeavour and Atlantis—in order to make way for Constellation’s Crew Exploration Vehicle and the Ares I launch vehicle. By shutting down the Shuttle program, NASA would be able to divert precious economic, human and material resources to the Constellation program.

As Apollo astronauts Neil Armstrong, Gene Cernan and Jim Lovell noted in an open letter last year, “Constellation was endorsed by two presidents of different parties and approved by both Democratic and Republican congresses.” But President Barack Obama, stubbornly intent on being the anti-Bush, canceled Constellation, choosing instead to use NASA resources to purchase more Russian-outsourced missions and to encourage the development of commercial rockets.

These alternatives are simply not worthy of the United States, the greatest space-faring nation in history. As former NASA administrator Michael Griffin noted in 2008, “It is dangerous for the United States to find itself dependent upon any external entity for a strategic capability, and space transportation is just that.”

What few Americans realize is that Russia began carrying American crews and cargo to the International Space Station after the Columbia disaster in 2003. Of course, collaborating with Russia by choice is far different than counting on Putin and his puppets out of necessity.

This is very troublesome, especially given Russia’s open hostility to U.S. interests and policies. Consider the high-stakes bargaining—or if you prefer, blackmail—this unfortunate situation invites. What’s to stop the Kremlin from demanding that, in exchange for a trip into space, the U.S. deactivate missile defense assets in Central Europe or the Med, look the other way as the Russian army finishes what it started in Georgia, or accede to Russian control over some new energy pipeline.

Just as worrisome is Russia’s space competence. Earlier this month, Russia launched an unmanned spacecraft, lost it for a few days and then found it in the wrong orbit. This followed failure of a satellite to reach orbit due to what news agencies called “a basic fuel miscalculation that made the craft too heavy to reach its required height.”

And we’re going to entrust our astronauts and space hardware to these guys?

As to private-sector alternatives, Armstrong, Cernan and Lovell note that “The availability of a commercial transport to orbit as envisioned in the president’s proposal cannot be predicted with any certainty.” Indeed, there are limitations to what private firms can do: One of NASA’s main private-sector partners is SpaceX, which is developing the Falcon 9 rocket, which is expected to carry 22,000 pounds into space. By contrast, the Shuttle can deliver a 65,000-pound payload into orbit. Moreover, SpaceX rockets have failed several times since 2006.

In short, the alternatives leave much to be desired.

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  • Henry Rearden

    This article is nothing but rubbish. The only way forward for manned spaceflight is the commercial sector. When has the US Govt ever done anything even close to within budget? With no competition imposed on it NASA has been doing little more than sit on its hands for the past 3 decades.

    You mention that SpaceX's rockets have failed several times since 2006. You are 100% correct, there were minor issues in their VERY FIRST FLIGHTS, conducted only 4 years after the companies inception. You build a rocket from the ground up in 4 years. You're clearly not an engineer. If you were you'd know that "to fail early and often" is the only way to design a good product. Since these failures there have been none. Including the successful first two launches of SpaceX's medium launch vehicle, the Falcon 9.

    Inspiring competition in Americas engineers, entrepreneurs, and more importantly, its dreamers, is the only way for us to make true strides forward in manned spaceflight. So what if "America" can't lift up astronauts itself for a measly couple of years? America will emerge 10 times more powerful when it has a spaceflight industry, competitive with itself and with the governments of other nations.

    • USMCSniper

      I agree that in principle that space exploration bot unmanned and manned should be privatized, but we have signed on to national and international political agreements. These internation treaties encompasses national laws, and many countries have passed national space legislation in recent years. The Outer Space Treaty requires parties GOVERNMENTS to authorize and supervise ALL national space activities, including the activities of non-governmental entities such as commercial and non-profit organizations. The Outer Space Treaty also incorporates the UN Charter by reference, and requires parties to ensure that activities are conducted in accordance with other forms of international law such as customary international law (the custom and practice of states). The government oversight and controlt of any commercial space activities beyond the scope of the satellite communications industry and even the experimental Space Plane put such restrictions such that commercial investment
      is not only high risk economically but not worth the government red tape. I went through this in the 1980's when Fairchild Space in Germantown Maryland, tried a commerical venture that had so many government roadblocks it was abandoned.

  • Chezwick_Mac

    Budgetary realities are going to preclude a lot of things that would otherwise be desirable. Defense and national security is more important than space-travel in the minds of most, and it too will have to take a big hit if we're ever going to justify massive entitlement cuts.

    In my recent discourse with liberal/lefties at politicususa.com, the ONE thing they agreed with me about was my acknowledgment that an insolvent America could no longer afford the status of being a global super-power. It was music to their ears. The difference between us of course is that I see the end of that status as a NECESSARY EVIL, that the world will be a more dangerous, insecure place without America's leadership, but that we simply don't have the money to continue playing the role of world-policeman.

    In the warped universe of the left, America's declining status is an intrinsic good, the end of "imperialism." They're eager for the vacuum to be filled by despots and totalitarians.

    • Wesley69

      They share the same vision as their leader, President Obama.

      As for space, it is the last frontier. The country controling space, controls this planet. It is the military high ground. We surrender it at our peril. The Chinese and or the Russians will surely take advantage of our absence from space, and if and when we return, we will be behind them in capabilities.

      • Chezwick_Mac

        It's a tragedy, to be sure. But when you're $14Trillion in debt for having lived high on the hog for so long, there's not a whole lot that can be done. If we're ever going to sell the end of the entitlement culture to a soft, pampered populace (and I have serious doubts we will be able to), we can't be diverting countless billions to aircraft carriers and space-ships.

        Then again, we could just carry on like business as usual and wait for the coming crash.

        • Wesley69

          Forget about the coming crash if there is no defense. Forget about life as usual if either Russia or China control space. Hard choices need to be made for sure. Waste needs to be addressed. The Bureaucracy in Washington needs to be addressed. The Bureaucracy running the entitlements needs to be addressed. Government needs to be smaller. Lets start with abolishing the Departments of Education, Energy, Housing & Urban Development, freezing all salaries of government workers, cutting benefits that are overly generous.

          • Chezwick_Mac

            Friend, I've been a foreign policy hawk my entire life…a huge proponent of both defense and NASA. I understand exactly where you're coming from. The difference between us is that I've modified my expectations to conform to new realities.

            You can talk all you want about the need for cuts, but when it's finally happening, literally millions of lives are going to be affected….many of them children. The change in culture and mentality is going to be HUGE. We'll never build even a rough consensus for as long as we continue spending hundreds of billions annually on defense/space.

            I'm looking past the …"we need to do this"…"we need to do that"…and am actually trying to visualize the painful decisions involved, the ingrained constituencies – mostly poor – that will be disenfranchised and impoverished…and all of it absolutely necessary if we're ever going to overcome our fiscal problems. The necessary changes will never come off without corresponding cuts to defense, space, and corporate welfare.

          • Wesley69

            I tip my hat to you. Since I was in college back in the 70"s, I've been a student of the US government. Now in retirement I have had even more time to study the government. I understand the need to get our house in order. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin has such a plan. It will be painful. But certain things I hope, the government will not cut, but increase funding for; one being our need to have the capacity to put men into space. Spaceships that can carry defense hardware, satellites in space. Maybe we should postpone the Moon and Mars missions, but should China and Russia militarize space, a written agreement isn't going to help us.

          • Chezwick_Mac

            Certainly agree with the last sentence. Hell, China has already tested a laser weapon in space and successfully destroyed one of their own satellites (creating a mass of space debris).

            The whole frigg'n subject matter is depressing. Truth is, I don't think we have the collective wisdom or maturity to ever get our spending problem under control.

          • Wesley69

            Unfortunately, I believe you are right. I'm afraid we've got Weimar Inflation coming. I'd advise getting into gold, but in the 30's FDR confiscated it. Silver is the better deal and is way undervalued as opposed to gold.

          • Jim_C

            I'm tipping my hat to you, as well. The very fact that you acknowledge there are hard realities to be faced with necessary cuts, that cuts are not just something to vent about, that there have to be consequences for huge swaths of the population (and not just the ones liberals care about)–it's refreshing.

            But I submit that just as say, busting up public sector unions is something might be considered overdue, so is our foreign policy. Frankly, a lot of countries have gone beyond us in certain sectors, partly because they counted on us for defense. It is time to get out of the World Police business and let them figure some of this stuff out. We should not have to be the one lynchpin of stability. We have looked outward too long at the expense of our domestic shores. I'm not proposing isolationism by any stretch, but a reordering of doctrine.

  • Patrick McKelheer

    With all of the NASA chatter lately I haven’t heard anythibg about the planned ‘-bternational Space Cebter” to be located ib the Yucatan,0Mexico. The Mexican goverment has passed the legislation and the 3ussians are going to provide techbical support. Accordibg to “)ucatan Living” a NASA astronaut and engineer have visited the site.

  • SHmuelHaLevi

    Sorry spectacle for sure.
    I had the honor of contributing to the US Space Programs Apollo and Hubble. Remarkably what both comments before mine fail to understand is that NASA did not produce any of the items the US used and is using in Space Research and travel. Every single part, assembly, subsystem and system was made by privetely owned companies not part of the government.
    That expertiise will soon be archived and or shredded and lost.
    Private entrepreneurs are remarkable people. I also founded my own company.
    Yet Space Programs require far more than just a vehicle and a few scaterred training facilities.
    The decision is another terrible blow to America.

  • USMCSniper

    Ayn Rand would have welcomed columnist Charles Krauthammer as a spokesman — a spiritual comrade-in-arms, one might say — on the matter of space exploration. In his recent July 17 column, “The Moon We Forgot,” Krauthammer bemoans what he describes as America’s retreat from space: “After countless millennia of gazing and dreaming, we finally got off the ground at Kitty Hawk in 1903. Within 65 years, a nanosecond in human history, we’d landed on the moon. Then five more landings, 10 more moonwalkers, and, in the decades since, nothing…. America’s manned space program is in shambles. Fourteen months from today, for the first time since 1962, the U.S. will be incapable not just of sending a man to the moon but of sending anyone into Earth orbit. We’ll be totally grounded.”

    And Ayn Rand would have relished Krauthammer’s telling rhetorical question:

    “So what, you say? Don’t we have problems here on Earth? Oh please. Poverty and disease and social ills will always be with us. If we’d waited for them to be rectified before venturing out, we’d still be living in caves.”

    • Wesley69

      A great post, USMCSniper!!!

  • JosephWiess

    Dumbass politicians, and a stupid president have put this country in danger. What could we do if Russia, China, or any other country put nukes in orbit, or on the ISS? Without a way to carry our soldiers into space, or our space forces into space, we'll have no way to get rid of the danger.

    Obama is a left wing nut that needs to be put in a looney bin, as do the legislators that cancelled the project. Like everything else we need, we need to have our own way into space.

    • Jim_C

      Nukes in space!! And to think it was all because that loony nut job, Obama. didn't protect us from nukes in space via our space program in 2011 because of having to "cut the federal budget" or some other stupid reason!

      I look on the bright side, though–There's just something new to fret and twitter about every day, isn't there? I'm going to try to make something up to be afraid of for next week! Maybe FPM can publish it! Maybe a spaceship funded by George Soros and manned by Islamist Communists with illegal Mexican workers…Why isn't Obama stopping that?!! Budget cuts? Yeah right. He just wants America to fail!!!!

  • Jikkiyu

    Space is a terrible place for people to be and is a terribly expensive place to put and keep them. Manned space operations serve no substantive national security purpose. The program is continued because of stranded constituencies and a vaguely nostalgic sense that putting men in space is a symbol of national power and progress.

    Hold the presses, but we won that race when it was held back in the 60's. No one else has come close, even with all the benefits of 50 years of experience and added tools and technologies. We can feel good about the USA and calmly put a stake in the heart of this blood-sucking enterprise.

    If you want to spend $ on national power demonstrations in space, do it with a technology of the future – automated and robotic systems. When it makes sense to send people into space again, we'll figure out how – presumably in less than the 10 years it took for us to get to the moon from scratch.

    • USMCSniper

      You say: " When it makes sense to send people into space again, we'll figure out how – presumably in less than the 10 years it took for us to get to the moon from scratch." In the meantime I guess you want to have us put hundreds of billions of dollars more into the bloodsucking black community so they can breed millions more illegitimate little black babies. By that time all the skilled engineers will be Chinese and they will own the moon. and in 20 years we will look like Liberia. This is what I mean — -http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ux1W_2lPn68

  • Jim_C

    "I would advise reading , THE ROOTS OF OBAMA'S RAGE, by DINESH D'SOUZA. Once you read it, you can understand the whys behind almost everything Obama does."

    Yes…I believe you can find it in the "Speculative Fiction" section.