When the shuttle Atlantis touched down yesterday it marked the official end of the space shuttle program at NASA. For those, like myself, who grew up in the early days of the shuttle program it is the end of an era. I remember vividly sitting in darkened classrooms glued to a television as Columbia launched into space in the early days. I remember the shock and sadness of watching Challenger explode in the sky. The shuttle program was a formative part of American culture in the ’80’s and it will always be filled with both tragedy and triumph in my mind.
Was it time for the shuttles to be retired? Probably. The shuttle program was beginning to show its age and it was time for the workhorse space vehicles to be put out to pasture, but I still have issues with the current situation at NASA.
My problem is that the current administration has seen fit to slash the budget to the space agency so severely that programs are being scrapped, jobs are being lost, and a serious blow to our scientific infrastructure in this country.
Now, I understand that many people feel that the space program is something we can live without, particularly in light of the current economic and debt situations. I couldn’t disagree more. The space program is a vital and integral part of our nation. It has provided incredible opportunities for scientific advancement and understanding that would not have been possible otherwise. In this era of declining American competitiveness in scientific and technological fields, killing off programs that endeavor to advance our scientific prowess seems like a major misstep.
And, in my mind, there is another consequence of this that seems to be overlooked by most pundits and politicians debating these facts: the dreams of our youth. When I was growing up being an astronaut was one of those big dreams that seemed to sweep up every kid at some point. The idea of floating up there among the stars was a fantasy that everyone has felt at one time or another. I know that for many of my friends the space program was a reason to work that much harder in math and science classes.
Now we have a space program that is on life support. What does that do to those dreams? Our nation has seen a downward spiral in performance by our youth in math and science, do we really want to take away something that gets them interested in these subjects?
I have heard all the arguments about the private sector taking over spaceflight. And, I know that many organizations are working to do just that. But, the commercialization of space is not a replacement for the kind of work in hard science that the individuals at our science agencies perform. A company that develops a service to ferry people into space if they have the money is not going to conduct high-end experiments that expand our understanding of the universe we live in. Commercial enterprises are not going to probe the depths of space to learn more about the physics that rule our lives.
I have to say, I think history will look back at the landing of the shuttle yesterday as the beginning of the end for American science if we don’t find some way to properly fund NASA and our other science agencies.