Fifty years ago Monday, John Glenn became the first American to orbit Earth.
Our nation’s space program has been a source of pride and prestige for our country. Some of the accomplishments of our program have not been duplicated by any other country. We have landed men on the moon, developed a unique space transportation system, explored the planets of our solar system and gazed at galaxies light years away.
But now our nation’s space program is at a dangerous crossroad. Economic times are hard and budgets are tight. Granted, since the end of the Cold War, there is no longer the urgency to fund the space program along 1960s lines. We won the space race. But space program naysayers criticize the money spent on space exploration as wasteful. One has to look at the facts to debunk this. NASA’s budget is one-half of 1 percent of the federal budget. Its 2012 budget of $18.7 billion would operate the Department of Health and Human Services for a little over one week (the Obama administration has recommended a 7 percent decrease in the 2013 budget).
NASA now has to compete with other nations. The United States now partners with its Cold War rival. The United States and Russia share the responsibilities for the operation of the International Space Station. The entrance of China into the manned spaceflight arena has changed the complexion of space exploration. In 2003, China joined Russia and the United States in becoming the third nation to successfully launch a manned spacecraft. Last November, the Chinese conducted a mission that could lead to the establishment of a manned orbital laboratory. The Chinese plan a manned lunar landing by 2025.
How can our nation reignite the spirit for space exploration? We must have leadership from Washington. The White House is responsible for establishing responsible specific goals within an identifiable time period. President Kennedy did so with setting a manned lunar landing goal by the end of the 1960s. President Reagan called for an orbital space station by the 1990s. President George W. Bush established a return to the moon by the year 2020 only to be cancelled by the Obama administration. The only specific objective set by the Obama administration is the use of manned spacecraft developed by private companies to commute to the space station. Congress could aid by establishing a fixed, workable budget in which necessary program development could be maintained.
Perhaps most importantly, the exploration of space affects us in a spiritual sense. Robert Browning wrote that “a man’s reach should exceed his grasp.” Exploration is good for the soul, for it challenges us. Humans excel when working toward seemingly unreachable goals. Imagine what new discoveries would be made and the new technologies that would be developed as we expand our presence.
The Chinese have made their plans clear and have the resources necessary to attain them. Are we willing to go to bed under the light of a Chinese moon?