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Reaching for the Stars

By Meredith C. Baker

This past summer, we celebrated the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing. The first lunar landing was an extraordinarily complex, highly technical feat of human engineering and bravery, and while we remember it proudly, it is more than a little strange to celebrate a feat that we could do 40 years ago but cannot do today.

Although rarely able to travel out of Earth’s orbit, the space program in the U.S. has been highly active over the past few decades. The space shuttle has flown nearly 130 flights, and the International Space Station is entering its tenth year of operation. However, last week, President Obama cancelled the National Aeronautics and Space Administration program to build a next generation spacecraft to travel to the International Space Station and the moon, essentially “grounding” our human space flight program There are only four more scheduled space shuttle flights remaining. Following this, American astronauts will rely on Russian rockets to travel to the space station and back.

While the proposed 2011 budget allocates funds to incentivize private enterprises to design and build human-rated rockets and spacecraft, none have been tested and deemed ready for flight. Expanding access to space and engaging private enterprise is a worthy project, but this untested path should not be America’s only means of sending humans to space. There are also no funds to support a vision for space travel beyond the five to ten years of “life” left in the ISS. We should reconsider whether or not we want to forfeit America’s leadership in space exploration.

In addition to translating the dreams of today into tomorrow’s reality, space exploration furthers technological development, creates and maintains jobs in science and technology fields, expands our scientific knowledge, and inspires schoolchildren across the country to study science.

Many of us have grown to take NASA for granted. Our generation’s lack of understanding of the importance of space exploration was made evident by a 2007 survey revealing that young Americans between the ages of 18 and 25 showed high levels of apathy about sending astronauts to the moon and Mars. If space travel were once again important to Americans, maybe more children would be interested in pursuing careers in math, science, and engineering. Complex and difficult engineering and scientific endeavors cannot be accomplished without an educated workforce.

Furthermore, great countries, historically, have been those that have explored and searched beyond their borders. In an attempt to keep America at the forefront of space exploration, former President George W. Bush laid out a plan to develop a new spacecraft, Orion, that would take flight in 2015 and send astronauts to the moon in 2020 in order to build a lunar base. But Obama’s budget undoes this commendable plan and will instead turn astronauts into paying passengers aboard yet-to-be developed commercial vehicles or Russian rockets. Meanwhile, China will be forging ahead in its effort to go to the moon. If we fall behind in this new space race, we will  forfeit our status as the hegemon of exploration and technology.

So why isn’t space exploration higher on the political agenda of the United States? Some argue that we have too many problems to deal with here on Earth to spend money on propelling a few select individuals out of the gravitational hold of our planet. Granted, NASA’s 18-billion-dollar budget is a lot of money, but it accounts for only 0.6 percent of the federal budget. And while it is true that there are many important issues to deal with and many projects that need funding, the scale of NASA’s funding pales in comparison to the 150 billion dollars spent bailing out American International Group, the nearly 130 billion dollars spent bailing out the auto industry, the 663.8 billion dollars allotted for the Defense Department budget, or the 1.58 trillion dollars allotted for social programs. The Department of Health and Human Services spends the equivalent of the annual NASA budget every 7.5 days. Support for NASA is a comparatively small investment with big returns.

Not only have American accomplishments in space instilled in us a sense of national pride, but they have also allowed us to reach across our borders and collaborate with other countries in spite of our diplomatic disputes. By creating an international space program, the U.S. has brought together many countries around the globe to work on a complex engineering project during peacetime. The United States has always been a country of action. In the midst of “change we can believe in,” human space exploration is vital for a country whose course of action isn’t just wishing on stars, but reaching for them.

Meredith C. Baker ’13, a Crimson editorial writer, lives in Canaday Hall.

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