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Opening Arguments

Lost in space

Let's at least note in passing the end of an era this week as the space shuttle Discovery took a piggyback ride to its final museum resting place. I've seen two sets of strong opinions on this. One is a sad lament that perhaps we're done in space.

With Russia's commitment to human spaceflight also seen wavering and some observers questioning whether even emerging powerhouse China will stick to its brashly self-confident plans, some begin to suspect the world is simply giving up.

[. . .]

NASA retains the longer term plans to return to the Moon, land people on a near-Earth asteroid and ultimately reach Mars. But veterans of the space program say there is a growing mismatch between resources and ambition.

"If you ask people whether space exploration is important, then eight or nine times out of 10 they will tell you that it is," said the Smithsonian Institution's Roger Launius, senior curator for space.

"The only problem comes when you tie that to funding. No president or congressman is ever going to say that he is putting an end to the human spaceflight program. But they may make decisions that stop you getting the resources to do anything"

But there is also the strong opinion that perhaps now the real space race can finally begin.

The good news is that amateur hour is now over and the private space race has begun. Where two Cold War superpowers failed, let a thousand business plans bloom!

The future of space is in the hands of the guys behind Amazon, PayPal, and Virgin. The force of competition will create endless possibilities and unimaginable technologies. No more talking about how the space program brought us Tang and Tempur-Pedic mattresses. We're going to Mars, baby, in business class.

As a libertarian, I can't argue with the notion that the private sector might be better than the government at space travel. But it's hard not to be a little sad that our great national commitment to exploring the unknown seems to be over. Government can and should do some Big Things we can all buy into, but it's hard to do that when we're committed to so many Little Things that add up to a bill we can't pay.

And I know the shuttle program wasn't all that exciting. It was even symbolic of where the space program was -- just flying around in the same old circles. It was never meant to be anything but a transition as we prepared to go back to the moon and then to Mars. But as the country let its enthusiasm for space slowly die, those of us hooked on space let the shuttle mean more to us than was warranted.


Harl Delos
Thu, 04/19/2012 - 1:49am

Back when they were starting up the shuttle program, Ben Bova (who had worked at JPL) argued that it was a bad move, that they could do the job for a lot less with disposable boosters, but they went with a reusable shuttle because it looked more friendly to the environment.  Consequently, I've been less a fan of the shuttle than of the space program in general.

When we opened up the Old West and able-bodied man could "prove up" a homestead and get himself a big hunk o'land,  but I don't see how that's going to happen with the Moon.  If we turn it over to private development, the moon will end up being the property of ExxonMobile, Utah International and Berkshire Hathaway.  I don't hate big corporations, but I'd rather the leaders in space development were companies the size of a local tool and die company.