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The Space Age At 50: Does American Glory Lie Ahead, Or Mainly In The Past?

By | October 1, 2007

      Moon Mission Not Until End Of Next Decade; Mars Is Three Decades Away

      The space age reaches the half-century mark Thursday surrounded by the same questions that marked its beginning: will humans have the courage and financial willpower to explore space, and if so, will it be the United States at the fore, or another nation?

      On Oct. 4, 1957, one of the two superpowers at the time, the then-Soviet Union, launched a tiny ball of a satellite, Sputnik, into space, the first manmade object to orbit the Earth, eliciting awe and fear in the United States.

      Americans wondered if the Soviets might place satellites in orbit that could, say, drop nuclear weapons on New York, Washington, Los Angeles or other cities.

      As a White House resident once said, "Never underestimate the power of fear."

      Thanks to the Russians, and to the electrifying vision of a dynamic young president named John F. Kennedy, competition to claim the heavens went full throttle up, and Americans had more than ample motivation to foot the galactic cost of a race to the moon.

      That race that began with Kennedy’s bold call on Sept. 12, 1962, to voyage to the moon, a staggeringly audacious effort that ended just seven years later, on July 20, 1969, when Astronaut Neil Armstrong stepped onto the lunar surface, proclaiming, "One small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind."

      In contrast, the new U.S. moon-shot program will take twice as long, despite NASA and contractors having most of the know-how needed for the program.

      NASA last year began awarding contracts for the Constellation Program, which will provide the Orion spacecraft and Ares rocket for a manned return to the moon at the end of the next decade.

      Question: when Americans next land on the moon, will they be welcomed by Chinese crews already there? Or Japanese? Or astronauts from India? Or Russians eager to reclaim their lost status as a superpower?

      And a voyage to Mars likely won’t happen until the 2030s. The question then will arise, will it be a U.S. mission? Or will it be funded by other nations as well, with China or Russia in the lead role? Experience suggests that one not bet the ranch that Congress will be up to funding it as an American endeavor, instead of ordering NASA to find other nations willing to help foot the bill.

      Case in point: the near-term future of the U.S. space program is a tale of winding down, of endings, not beginnings.

      Since the American lunar program ended with the Apollo 17 mission in the closing days of 1972, astronauts have gone no further than low Earth orbit, blasting off more than 100 times on space shuttles (a flawed design that has cost lives) to the International Space Station.

      To be sure, one cannot lightly dismiss the station. Human beings from America, Canada, Russia and other nations have assembled a giant home in space while whirling along at 17,500 miles an hour in the giant vacuum, the black void, hanging upside down above Earth.

      Only the shuttles have the size and strength to transport gigantic space station components into orbit.

      But that job of the shuttles will be completed soon, and they are set for retirement in 2010 to help save money. After that, America — the nation that once left the world to watch in awe the live video of the man on the moon, Neil Armstrong — won’t even be able to lift one of its astronauts into low Earth orbit, until the first manned Orion-Ares mission in 2015.

      That means the United States and its space program for half a decade will be compelled to depend on the kindness of strangers, making American astronauts into cosmic hitch- hikers.

      NASA Administrator Michael Griffin has a word to describe this dismaying turn of events: "unseemly."

      What he didn’t say is that it is unnecessary. The United States, for all its troubles such as losing entire industries abroad and sinking into oceans of debt owed to foreigners, remains for all that the richest nation on Earth, with the largest economy on the planet.

      Clearly, this is a nation that can afford a first-rank space program. What is lacking here isn’t financial ability. Rather, all that is lacking is the guts, vision and determination by occupants of the White House and the Capitol building to fund human exploration of our solar system. This is a time to demand, "Show me the money."

      For those in Congress or in the general public who adopt a mean, tight-fisted stance, saying that space programs are a frivolous frolic, a waste of wealth, consider but a few gems that the first half-century of the space program has given to the occupants of Planet Earth:

      • Space-based medicine
      • Desk-top computers with as much storage and processing power as 1950s computers occupying half a city block
      • Cell phones
      • Global Positioning System in-car guidance systems, a technology that may soon permit commercial airplanes to fly directly to a destination to avoid overcrowded airways, those invisible old-tech highways in the skies.
      • High-speed communications enabling everything from instant credit-card approvals at cash registers worldwide, to the ability of people to watch TV shows in remote areas far from TV transmitters
      • Panoramic pictures of the landscape on the nearest planet, Mars
      • Close-ups of heavenly bodies, ranging from asteroids to the rings of Saturn
      • An understanding of events billions of years in the past, back to the dawn of the universe

      This list could go on to myriad other items, such as Velcro and new types of food.

      Let it suffice that the space program, even if it has cost tens of billions of dollars, has yielded a high and fair return to taxpayers.

      If a spirit of generosity could descend upon those empowered to make decisions in Washington, and they decreed an Apollo-style program to voyage to Mars before the end of the next decade, who knows what benefits that might yield for the human race.

      One possibility: a chance for that human race to escape mass death.

      So says a defense analyst, Loren Thompson, chief operating officer of the Lexington Institute, a think tank near the Pentagon that deals with defense and other issues.

      If one gazes at the moon, the surface clearly is deeply pock-marked with craters formed by asteroids slamming into the lunar surface.

      The same has occurred on Earth, where one huge asteroid formed Chesapeake Bay, Thompson observed. Each gigantic asteroid collision, he noted, has wiped out virtually all advanced life forms such as, say, mammals.

      It is clear, he said, that another gargantuan asteroid will slam into the big blue planet, and humans will be eliminated — unless, that is, they have somewhere else to go, a second home.

      "Someday another will wipe out humanity (assuming some other cataclysm hasn’t claimed us first)," he predicted.

      "When a really big asteroid hits, it kills most of the life on Earth by generating a smothering cloud of toxic gases that blots out sunlight for decades. The bigger, more complex species — like us — tend to succumb first," he explained. Not pretty.

      How likely is it that a huge asteroid will this way come?

      As it happens, fairly likely.

      "Our next close encounter with a major asteroid is expected to occur on April 13, 2029 — Friday the 13th, it turns out," Thompson said. "At 8:36 in the morning Washington time, a 25 million ton asteroid will pass within 20,000 miles of the Earth. That isn’t just closer than the Moon, it’s actually closer than the communications satellites we operate in geosynchronous orbit."

      So it is possible that something much larger will actually slam into the Earth.

      But that, Thompson asserts, is where Mars enters the picture.

      It could be a life raft rescuing an otherwise doomed humanity, he wrote.

      "Mars is by far the most congenial candidate, with potential to eventually be ‘terraformed’ into a planet where pressure suits and airtight structures will no longer be needed to sustain human beings," he wrote.

      "That’s a long way off, and it may never happen at the rate our current space efforts are progressing. But whenever you hear about other ways we might spend money set aside for the human space flight program, you ought to think about the big rock that is out there somewhere, destined to destroy everything we have created unless human beings have found another place to live."

      So there you have it.

      NASA has given Americans, and the world at large, myriad benefits unimagined when Kennedy set us on the path to the cosmos. It is just as certain that future ventures into the unknown will yield an equally generous cornucopia of blessings.

      All that remains is to summon the will to start the months-long journey to the red planet.

      You get what you pay for in this world we call Earth, and first place in space will never come free. Rather, it is a high-stakes game, in money and risk to astronauts’ lives, and only those with the intestinal fortitude for it are privileged to go where no human has gone before.

      Thompson’s paper is entitled "Apocalypse Soon: Another Rationale for Human Space Flight" and may be read in its entirety by going to on the Web.

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