When Atlantis lifts off on its final mission scheduled for Friday, it will bring to an end an era of space exploration that began for the United States with the Soviet launch of the unmanned satellite Sputnik 1 in 1957 and the first man to fly in space, Russia's Yuri Gagarin, on April 12, 1961.
Alan Shepard followed Gagarin into space on May 5, 1961, becoming the second person, and the first American, to fly in space. And under John F. Kennedy's vision and with resolve and resources, the United States reached his stated goal of "landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to Earth" on July 20, 1969.
In the 1960s, the place to be for a young reporter was Houston, Texas. I met many of the original seven astronauts, and the ones who followed them. NASA, Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo became household names. "A-OK," "The Eagle has landed," and "throttle up" entered the lexicon.
On a commercial flight a few years ago, I sat across the aisle from John Glenn, the first American to orbit the Earth. This was when Glenn was a Democratic senator from Ohio. The in-flight movie was Apollo 13, about the mission to the Moon, aborted because of mechanical failure.
When the film ended, several people asked Glenn for his autograph. I said, "John, you know they are not asking for your autograph because you're a senator, don't you?"
He laughed. "How well I know."
Whose autographs do we seek today when celebrity has eclipsed accomplishment?
There is disagreement between the current NASA leadership and NASA's old guard who say the failure to commit to manned space flight endangers America's dominance in space.
The Obama administration announced plans in February 2010 to cancel the "Constellation" program, the goal of which was to return Americans to the Moon, Mars, and beyond. Two months later, he presented a new space policy, which he said would "increase NASA's budget by $6 billion over the next five years . . . increase Earth-based observation to improve our understanding of our climate and our world . . . and extend the life of the International Space Station. . . ." As to space exploration, "Nobody is more committed to manned space flight, to human exploration of space than I am," he said.
That remains to be seen. Meaningful deep-space exploration requires human participation for meaningful results. And, according to The New York Times, NASA is facing "a brain drain that threatens to undermine safety as well as the agency's plans." No more shuttles, no need for rocket scientists. "The good guys," the Times reports, "see the end coming and leave."
Former NASA administrator Michael Griffin believes the space agency has "lost its way." In an article for Air & Space magazine in 2007, Griffin set out the philosophical argument for "The Real Reasons We Explore Space":
". . . [M]ost of us want to be, both as individuals and as societies, the first or the best in some activity . . . a second reason is curiosity. . . . Finally we humans have, since the earliest civilizations, built monuments. We want to leave something behind to show the next generation . . . what we did with our time here. This is the impulse behind cathedrals and pyramids, art galleries and museums."
Retired shuttle astronaut Jack Lousma summed up to me the dangers inherent in the loss of American leadership in manned space flight:
"In days gone by, and in order to capture support for a new space initiative, NASA would offer all kinds of rationale to sideline critics and to make the 'sale,' that is, spin-off innovative new products, strengthen national security, inspire education, manage Earth's resources, capture six- to seven-times return on investment, etc. . . . Nobody was far-sighted enough during the Apollo buildup to 'sell' the public and to blunt criticism, by predicting a computer in every home, the internet, GPS, cell phones, medical instrumentation, and a host of other 'far-out' inventions. This will happen again, despite Obama, who has put a huge obstacle in the way, temporarily, I believe, but not until we have lost the 'best and brightest' of space flight, along with tens of thousands of experienced and dedicated space workers."
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