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To Infinity & Beyond

Stephanie Wilson ’88 will be one of the last Harvard graduates to fly on a space shuttle and will thus be one of the last to vividly recount the wonder and mystique of her space flight experience. When the former engineering concentrator from Currier House travelled aboard the Space Shuttle Discovery back in 2006, she was regarded with pride by the Harvard community—her mission would bring“great credit” to the Division of Engineering and Applied Sciences, as former Dean Venkatesh Narayanamurti said in a Harvard Crimson news article reporting the mission.

Earlier this year, President Barack H. Obama cancelled the National Aeronautics & Space Administration Constellation program, which effectively eliminates the human spaceflight initiative. In a statement explaining the decision and fiscal goals for NASA, there is an emphasis on other NASA programs that promote “robotic space exploration, science and Earth observations.” In substantiating the plan to eliminate the Constellation program, it is also stated that “NASA’s program to repeat many of the achievements of the Apollo era is the least attractive approach to space exploration as compared to potential alternatives.” While there is validity in bolstering other NASA programming in this new budget proposal, this also dictates an end to NASA’s return mission to the moon and the slow demise of our nation’s human spaceflight program—an initiative which has established America’s global leadership in space technology to other nations.

The Constellation Program was inherently rife with intangible assets that have strengthened our nation and continue to fortify our goals, and there should have been a greater focus on this program’s development. NASA mission and vision statements to find life beyond, explore the universe, and inspire the next generation of explorers are significantly debilitated by the drastic changes proposed by the new plan. The elimination of this program erases the achievements of those brave visionaries who have expanded human knowledge, revolutionized scientific understanding, and have produced advancements that have benefited all humanity. Harvard University, in a parallel academic mission statement, honors an exploration of the unknown so that students may “rejoice in discovery” and feel liberated by education “to explore, to create to challenge, and to lead.” In maintaining such a congruent purpose, to encourage the achievement of unimaginable feats, and to discover and adapt to evolving technologies in society, Harvard University should support NASA astronauts in their push to encourage Obama to reconsider the new space policy.

As former President George W. Bush asserted in a 2003 address at the NASA Headquarters, “America has ventured forth into space for the same reasons. We have undertaken space travel because the desire to explore and understand is part of our character.”

While I acknowledge the immediate fiscal returns this budget generates, providing NASA with $100 billion over the 2011 through 2015 fiscal years, this proposal would further dismantle and eventually bury what remains of the human spaceflight initiative—a cornerstone of national pride, novel American discovery, and scientific inspiration. Proposed budget increases are also deemed to be less than the $3-billion-a-year increase that a blue-ribbon committee appointed by the Obama administration said was needed for NASA to successfully pursue a human spaceflight program beyond low-Earth orbit. Considering these factors, it is debatable whether this plan is even significantly cheaper or faster than further investment into manned spaceflight technology. More importantly, this program has proven to surpass fiscal limitations in a tremendous display of awe-inspiring exploration and discovery in unknown territory. America has established its preeminence, ambitious leadership, and quest for discovery within the opportunities set forth by the NASA Constellation Program. It is precisely this same thirst for human knowledge, acceptance of challenge with unwavering dedication, and pursuit of excellence that Harvard strives to impart within the mindset of its students.

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Cancelling NASA’s human space operations hampers efforts to continue advancing at the frontier of human space exploration, develop technology, and set the standards of excellence that will enable further space ventures to eventually succeed. Likewise, the elimination of the Constellation Program could limit future generations’ abilities to achieve space flight. Students will no longer be able to say “I want to be an astronaut when I grow up” with the same starry-eyed vision of walking on the moon. With such parallel goals, Harvard University should stand by NASA astronauts and advocate for the Constellation Program, thus encouraging the Obama administration to continue funding it. After all, there is bound to be another Harvard student dreaming of the same aspiration Stephanie Wilson was able to realize.

Shalini Pammal ’13, a Crimson editorial writer, lives in Leverett House.

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