The economic bad news is never far away. All anyone needs to do is pick up a paper, turn on the local or national news, the radio or even talk to a co-worker or neighbor. We have major problems at every turn in this country including a massive deficit for 2008 and an accumulated national debt that now exceeds ten trillion dollars. Caught in the middle is the space program. While it is hard to argue for an increase in program funding in these times when so many are in need nonetheless there is a lesson for all that the situation the space program finds itself in could have been avoided – more importantly it’s not too late to avoid making the mistake in the future by acting now.
Today’s economic environment and as a direct result the money the space program needs and receives is slowing down our progress in space only because the strategic vision to put in place a program that is efficient and sustainable is lacking. Our deep space program is the envy of the world. No one can achieve what we have done to cover our solar system. From Hubble, SOHO, Cassini, Dawn, Messenger, New Horizons, the Mars Rovers, the Mars Polar Lander and many other current and past achievements we have blazed a trail no one can match, but slowly the world’s other space dreamers are beginning to flex their muscle. There is no need for competition in this arena. We should all cooperate to gain the most we can from everyone’s initiative. The dreams of space exploration have been the one area that transcends geographic boundaries and politics, but as we are seeing and as we have seen in the past – it is the space program and a nation’s ability to achieve goals beyond our planet that are a source of national pride, but we as a planet can be much more productive if we pool our resources.
In the manned program however we are losing ground, the latest potential setback with the ARES I rocket is an example of what can happen when we try “space on the cheap”. The billions we are spending will inevitably end up costing us more simply because we will in the future as we have in the past continually reinvent the program instead on building on what has been learned (and paid for) in previous initiatives.
We desperately needed a Manned Spaceflight strategy for our long term presence in space, but instead what we have in the Vision for Space Exploration is a series of goals that once again gives us a “point and shoot” and “here and now” capability and not a sustainable or economically viable strategy that leverages what we’ve done with Apollo, the ISS, and the Shuttle packaged in strategy that is “sell-able” in this economical and political environment.
All of us that are passionate about the space program and want to see our manned program thrive and succeed should speak out at this critical juncture to push for a program that builds on our past to strengthen our future. So fragile is the program with a retiring Space Shuttle and a no demonstrated replacement that if we don’t act now and don’t lay down a new vision that our country’s magnificent efforts and sacrifices in manned spaceflight could once again be just a dream.