After Atlantis, America comes down to Earth

The final space-shuttle flight shows that Obama lacks the vision to inspire the world the way JFK did 50 years ago.

Patrick Hayes

Topics Science & Tech

The final launch of the space shuttle Atlantis last week brought an early end to the space-shuttle era, with nothing but vague mumblings from Obama about what is to come next. This stands in stark contrast with the bold ‘man on the moon’ speech delivered by John F Kennedy 50 years ago, which symbolised America’s vision and ambition not merely for space but for the future more generally.

As Kennedy said: ‘I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to Earth… If we were to go only half way or reduce our sights in the face of difficulty, it would be better not to go at all.’ His speech set America on a course that saw it achieve its goal, putting Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the moon in 1969.

Such a definite statement of intent, regardless of the obstacles, contrasts sharply with Barack Obama’s speech on the launch of Atlantis: ‘I have tasked the men and women of NASA with an ambitious new mission: to break new boundaries in space exploration, ultimately sending Americans to Mars. I know they are up to the challenge – and I plan to be around to see it.’

Obama’s speech begs many questions. What does it mean to ‘break new boundaries’? What’s the plan for getting people into space to achieve this? It’s heartening to see that manned exploration to Mars hasn’t been knocked off the agenda completely. But seeing it’s an ‘ultimate goal’ scheduled to take place at some point before the 49-year-old president slips off this mortal coil, such plans are as vague as Kennedy’s were specific.

The early decommissioning of the US space-shuttle fleet – the five shuttles were built to be able to carry out 100 missions each but managed to average barely a quarter of that, only 135 in total – has left what one space-science professor has aptly characterised as a ‘yawning gap in human spaceflight’. It means that the US currently no longer has any means to send humans into space and, in order to reach the International Space Station that it largely funded, it will have to pay over $50million to buy a seat on Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft. What next? As one commentator put it: ‘There’s a lot of uncertainty. The only sure bet is that following the space shuttle’s farewell flight, most of the members of the launch team will be out of a job.’

It was clear from the outset that Obama was not going to be an enthusiast about space travel. As he said while campaigning in 2008: ‘I grew up on Star Trek. I believe in the final frontier… [But] NASA has lost focus and is no longer associated with inspiration… I don’t think our kids are watching the space shuttle launches. It used to be a remarkable thing. It doesn’t even pass for news anymore.’

Rather than attempting to inspire a new generation with an exciting vision for man’s exploration of the final frontier that would warrant frontpage headlines, Obama has been reining in existing plans since he took office. The fear of a repeat of the 2003 Columbia shuttle disaster that plagued plans for space exploration during the Bush administration has given way to widespread apathy. As one cynical commentator yawns, ‘Every planet has now been visited, and every planet with a solid surface bar Mercury has been landed on. Asteroids, moons and comets have all been added to the stamp album.’

Last year, Obama announced that large parts of the Bush administration’s Constellation Project would be scrapped. The project, while woefully underfunded, at least had the tangible goal of putting man back on the moon as part of preparations for a landing on Mars. Now plans increasingly seem to centre on encouraging private industry to develop commercial visits to space, which would largely mean focusing on low-Earth orbit instead of deep space.

It’s not just manned space exploration that’s at threat, however; our greater scientific understanding of the universe is being called into question, too. As the Hubble Space Telescope, which over the past 20 years has been leading the way in making new scientific discoveries about the nature of the universe, reaches the end of its life, exciting plans for the launch of its vastly superior successor, the James Webb Space Telescope, are now also being seriously threatened due to US budget cuts. It looks likely that not only will America no longer be sending men to explore space, but the curtain could also be drawn on the greatest window we’ve ever had on the universe.

Attitudes to space have always revealed a great deal about life and attitudes on Earth. Now, where there is an appetite for space exploration, it’s often not to explore the final frontier ‘because it’s there’, but because of the mess we’re making to our own planet.

Typifying the low horizons some now have for space, one writer claims exploration is necessary precisely because of the damage we are doing to the planet: ‘[W]e are not meant to go to the stars. Earth is our permanent home, for good or ill… We should explore our own solar system… because the climate crisis is very much a matter of interactions we have altered between our planet and our sun. So we are helped enormously in our understanding of the situation by going into space and looking down at Earth.’

Some even greater misanthropes think precisely because we’ve messed up our own planet, we shouldn’t explore other planets, leaving them pristine and untainted by the virus-like nature of human beings. Many simply choose not to engage in the debate at all.

It all jars even more with the can-do attitude that Kennedy invoked: ‘We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organise and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win.’

In a time when space exploration is hampered by precaution and small-thinking, it’s perhaps too easy to get nostalgic for a bygone era when US presidents like JFK made such bold, confident speeches. This only brings home the importance of making the case for space exploration, the leap into the unknown, the conquering of ignorance. Not just for the important advances in scientific knowledge this will bring, but because of the ways it can transcend the limits of what humanity can currently imagine. It’s far better for us to be starry-eyed than to remain forever with our feet firmly grounded on the earth.

Patrick Hayes is a reporter for spiked.

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Topics Science & Tech


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