On Thursday, July 21st, 2011 – a little more than a year ago — the Atlantis space shuttle landed smoothly at Florida’s Kennedy Space Center. Mission Commander Chris Ferguson’s voice, shaken with emotion, rang loud and clear in Mission Control: “Atlantis is finally home. We were honored to be a part of this….but it [ultimately] is everyone who has worked on the shuttle program—although we got to take the ride, we sure hope that everybody who has ever worked…touched…looked at…admired a space shuttle was able to take just a little part of the journey with us.”
And with that sentimental finish for the 135th space shuttle mission, the 30-year shuttle program officially came to a close. The space shuttle made the United States (and the world) a better place – hundreds of astronauts have traveled to space, medical and scientific research discoveries have been made, and America’s leadership in space has been unquestionable for the past half-century. From 1981 until July 2011, NASA’s space shuttle (part of the official Space Transportation System) was the United States government’s manned launch vehicle and the only winged manned spacecraft to achieve orbit and landing, as well as being the only reusable space vehicle that has every made multiple flights into orbit.
With the door closed on this chapter of NASA’s space flight history, the question remains: what’s next? Although President Obama has unveiled a plan for the future of American space flight involving revamping the Orion crew capsule to eventually carry astronauts into deep space, NASA administration officials are facing the realities of the cancellation of existing rocket launcher and spacecraft programs and the layoffs of thousands of aerospace workers — all signs pointing to the federal government’s belief that the space program is “too costly” to continue funding in today’s economic climate.
How and why did the United States get involved in the space program in the first place? In the midst of a power war with the Soviet Union, America was determined to gain an “edge” on its Eastern European rival. The space race began, and the United States claimed the victory when Neil Armstrong completed his moonwalk in July 1969. Following the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo programs, the United States continued to improve space travel, culminating in the development (and completion) of the International Space Station (ISS). From the inception of the space program, the United States has been motivated by a desire to “beat out the competition” and reign supreme in this highly international and technological arena. The United States achieved incredible success over the past fifty years, and its absence from continued space program development may symbolize a decline in America’s leadership; in the future, American astronauts will now have to “hitch a ride” in Russian space vehicles in or-der to get to the ISS. Without a clear future path for NASA, the United States simply cannot play the same role it once did.
There is already a growing fear that China will eventually overtake the United States as the dominant world power. Although this power transition may not happen anytime soon, there is evidence to suggest that our decline in focus on manned space flight may play a part in speeding up this transition. The steady decline in emphasis on math and science education for children in the US presents a stark contrast to China’s strong math and science requirements. Students from Asia and India now dominate many of the technical programs in top-ranked American universities. The space exploration stimulation that sparked young American students’ interests in science and engineering is no longer present. Will American leadership in the space program be a thing of the past? Only time will tell. Furthermore, as previously mentioned, space exploration has always served as inspiration for children over the past generations—many children claimed their dream jobs as astronauts, engineers, and scientists. Astronauts have been idolized as America’s true superheroes. No other technological advancement can preach the belief that the sky is literally no limit to what can be achieved with ambition and disciplined commitment. What will drive future innovation and progress for our nation?
Interestingly, NASA has acknowledged the effects of economic cuts to the American space program. Although Joseph Dyer, chairman of NASA’s Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel, praises NASA for doing an “excellent job” in planning for the shuttle’s retirement, there is no doubt that a “Team B” effect has plagued the organization. “The good guys see the end coming and leave,” said Albert D. Wheelon, former aerospace executive and Central Intelligence Agency official, “the best and brightest often head for the doors….and you’re left with the B students.”
This issue hits home for me because my dad has worked for the past 20 years as a project manager for the ISS in its Huntsville’s branch. For the Atlantis launch, my family had the opportunity to travel to Cape Canaveral, Florida to honor my dad’s work as well as receive a quality view of this final step in NASA’s program. As Atlantis glided across the sky in this bittersweet moment, tears filled the eyes of those surrounding me, for these people had given their lives to watch America send a man into space. The end of America’s shuttle program not only signifies a potential end to America’s leadership in space, but also goes much further in representing an end to the way of life for those who have, are, and will continue to inspire America’s children for generations to come. Unfortunately, without significant action on America’s part, this present-day inspiration appears destined to become nothing more than pure history.
This article was written by Liesel Burks and previously appeared in a print edition of the Vanderbilt Political Review.