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America's Retreat from Space
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‘Four. . . three . . . two . . . one. We have ignition . . . and lift-off.”
For more than half a century, that countdown sequence has signaled the start of another daring plunge into the unknown– what we’ve come to know as “The Right Stuff.”
Now that sound will only be a folk memory. As space shuttle Atlantis touches down for the last time, it closes out an era that began with John Kennedy’s dedicating America to going to the moon and stretched through Alan Shepherd, John Glenn and Neil Armstrong to Christa McAuliffe and Mark Kelly.
It involved the crews of Mercury and Apollo and the space shuttle’s 135 missions and the engineers of a thousand companies who made those things fly– and gave us personal computers, cellphones and GPS along the way.
“Atlantis’ last flight is a sad day for those who believe in America’s greatness and a happy day for those who welcome America’s decline.” — Arthur Herman
The situation is deeply frustrating for those who know the shuttle program firsthand, like Apollo 17 commander Eugene Cernan: “This is the first time in a half century we’re going to be sitting on our hands and watching the other guys”– meaning the Russians– “and not being able to get into space. Keeping a shuttle in the garage warm and fueled, and ready to go would be . . . a tremendous signal to the rest of the world that we’re still in the ball game.”
But some don’t want us in the game anymore.
Closing down the shuttle isn’t a way to save money: President Obama actually wants NASA’s funding to go up. But he’s also canceling the follow-up Constellation program for returning to the moon– and turning NASA into a program for Muslim outreach and monitoring climate change.
Oh, and designing a bigger rocket that someday, we’re told, could take astronauts and robot ships to asteroids and Mars. Right: We’ll see Obama embrace the flat tax first. There’s ideology at work here.
Richard Nixon launched the shuttle program in 1972, but the president whose name will always be associated with it is Ronald Reagan.
He oversaw the first orbital flight in 1981, just nine years after the program began. Then, after the Challenger disaster took the lives of McAuliffe and six other shuttle crew members on Jan. 28, 1986, he insisted that the program continue.
Reagan understood that the desire to put Americans into space was part the frontier spirit that had spurred creativity and innovation since the country’s founding, and that historian Frederick Jackson Turner argued was the fuel of American exceptionalism.
“Nothing ends here,” Reagan assured a heartbroken nation that night. “Our hopes and our journeys continue.”
By contrast, the American left always detested the space program as Cold War hubris and saw the Right Stuff as a danger zone filled with hazardously high levels of testosterone. The only value they saw was as a display of big government in action– when, in fact, the program was really a coming together of American industrial knowhow, engineering innovation, scientific precision and sheer guts that a government could fund but never recreate.
The left has gotten its wish– for now.
Yes, the technologies behind the shuttle program are outdated, and yes, it has cost us money, some $200 billion over the last four decades. Still, Atlantis’ last flight is a sad day for those who believe in America’s greatness and a happy day for those who welcome America’s decline.
But the American people have not had their final word on Obama’s decisions here (as on so much else). Certainly, any Republican presidential candidate who promised to revive the space shuttle would send a powerful signal to the country that the spirit of JFK and Reagan lives and that America’s day of leadership is not done.
Arthur Herman is a visiting scholar at AEI.
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