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Elegy for the Future

By Daniel A. Handlin

The Space Age began on Oct. 04, 1957. It ended on Feb. 01, 2010.

On that day, President Obama announced his inexplicable decision to ‘realign’—read “scrap”—NASA’s mission to replace the space shuttle and return humans to the Moon by 2020, in his fiscal year 2011 budget.

It’s baffling because the cancellation of the Constellation moon program is tantamount to taking the nine billion dollars already spent on the program over six years and setting it on fire. It’s baffling because the decision will eliminate thousands of jobs—this comes days after the President said in the State of the Union, “jobs must be our number one focus in 2010.” It’s baffling because the decision could not have been made to save money, since the proposal actually increases NASA’s budget, even though the President announced days ago, “we are prepared to freeze government spending for three years”.

Obama probably didn’t make the move to boost his image as a unifier, although it’s certainly had that effect: the new plan faces virtually unanimous bipartisan opposition across the Senate and the House. “Simply unacceptable,” said one Democratic Congresswoman; “[a] death march for the future of U.S. human space flight” a Republican Senator added. A former NASA administrator compared it unfavorably to a similar decision made by Richard Nixon, labeling it, “one of the most…strategically bankrupt…decisions in human history.” This is what you get when you try to destroy a program that has had nearly unanimous support in two Congresses: one controlled by Republicans and one led by Democrats. It passed in the latter by a vote of 409 to 15 in 2008.

Obama claims to have scuttled Constellation in order to replace it with a partially privatized space program. But this is Washington doublespeak at its worst and nothing less than a cover for doing away with the program. Like national defense and fire departments, space exploration is at present a public good, optimally undertaken by governments. The private space industry has a very important role to play but it cannot and should not replace the role of government—the two are synergistic.

The real problem with the decision is that it undermines the strength of the nation’s economic and technological leadership. To understand this, we can invoke the words of a key Democrat who has previously given eloquent speeches in support of the Constellation program—Barack Obama.

“...[My staffers were] talking about delaying…Constellation… I told my staff we’re going to find an entirely different offset,” Obama said in Aug. 2008. Obama cited Constellation as a specific example of how his administration would be more “pro-science” than Bush, with one campaign press release stating he would, “support the development of this vital [program].”

“I still remember sitting on my grandfather’s shoulders as some of the [moon] astronauts [returned]…[he said] this is what America’s all about, we can do anything when we put our mind to it,” President Obama reminisced. “And that was what the space program described, that sense of possibility and always reaching out to new frontiers.” Apparently today’s American youth don’t need this sense anymore. The power of space exploration, however, is quite clear to China and India, who will now gladly take this opportunity to land their own astronauts on the Moon or Mars well before the US is capable of doing so.

Yielding the lead in space exploration to other nations doesn’t just look bad on television—it also has serious long-term repercussions for the nation. Space exploration has long been the source of many of the nation’s most capable engineers and scientists, and it is difficult to see how this decision will inspire more students to study math and science. This comes at a time when U.S. Ph.D.s in science and math are at historic lows (as President Obama has also pointed out). This is not just hyperbole; among those who have cited the Apollo program as their inspiration to go into science and technology are Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, and Amazon founder Jeff Bezos (who now runs a space company). Imagine today’s world without these individuals, not to mention the many thousands of others who were inspired by Apollo, and one gets a sense of the devastation Obama’s decision can wreak on our economic and cultural future.

A healthy and robust space program generates not just national esteem and extraordinary people but other developments as well, including the discovery of global warming, smoke detectors, and bar codes. And if one takes a long-term view of civilization, human expansion in our solar system is as inevitable as the journeys made across the Atlantic Ocean that ended in the New World. The solar system as a whole has land and resources equivalent to millions of Earths—to simply ignore it would be unimaginably shortsighted. The Moon alone, for instance, has enough fusion fuel to provide totally clean electricity for centuries.

NASA’s Constellation program to return to the Moon and proceed onward to Mars is exactly the kind of mission that NASA does best and it has great benefits for both the world and the United States. By eliminating this program, President Obama will cause serious long-term damage to American leadership in science, technology, and economic prowess.

Daniel Handlin ’11, a former Crimson news editor, is an astrophysics concentrator in Winthrop House.

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