Last week marked several important dates in the history of space exploration. Forty years ago last Thursday, an unknown 27-year-old Soviet pilot named Yuri Gagarin took flight in the small spherical Vostok capsule. His one-orbit, 108-minute flight made him the first man to travel in space and marked one of the most important events of the 20th century. Twenty years later, also on Apr. 12, the space shuttle Columbia entered space. The 54-hour maiden voyage of the reusable spacecraft signified the dawning of a new age of exploration.
Despite these achievements, the last 30 years have seen a paucity of achievements in space exploration. As Astronaut Buzz Aldrin has said, “History will remember the inhabitants of the last century as the people who went from Kitty Hawk to the Moon in 66 years, only to languish for the next 30 in low Earth orbit.” This slowdown can be attributed to the fact that NASA’s funding has been cut repeatedly, and ambitious programs have been scrapped for more cost-effective and passive endeavors.
Today, NASA officials are overwhelmed by the urgency of building the International Space Station, given the most recent plans for a budget cut from the Bush Administration. Furthermore, the cuts have forced the abandonment of the Space Launch Initiative, which would have redesigned the space shuttle, the vehicle currently used for space travel. These cuts severely undermine NASA’s ability to fund the gradual exploration of space, including eventually returning to the Moon and one day landing on Mars.
With the widespread popular support of the space program in the 1960’s, NASA was able to send men to the moon. Today, support can lead to better things: private citizens traveling to orbiting “hotels” and the settlement of the Moon and Mars. The general public is unconcerned with space exploration because the threat of Soviet domination of space is no longer an issue. As a result, new endeavors seem less urgent, but the public is mistaken.
Supporting NASA leads to benefits that all can reap—just last year, NASA developed well over 40 products that directly affect life here on earth, including a robotic arm that is now being used in coronary and other intrusive surgeries. The use of the arm reduces the healing and recovery time needed by patients and lowers healthcare costs. NASA also produced a device called the Supercritical Air Mobility Pack that allows firefighters and hazardous materials workers to be able to breathe longer with a greater margin of safety during emergency situations. In addition to these more technical innovations, NASA has brought us commonly-used products like Tang, Velcro and the Astronaut pen.
Looking back at the recent achievements of NASA, from landing the Pathfinder on Mars to the launching the Hubble Space Telescope to creating a water purification device used by dentists across the country, it is amazing that NASA is able to do so much with so few resources. But with popular support and greater funding, imagine the possibilities for the future.
—Ganesh N. Sitaraman