The smooth landing of the shuttle Atlantis on Thursday closed an era in America’s human space flight program that had triumphs and tragedies over the past three decades but was long overdue to end. The question now is whether the nation can summon the will to push hard for a far more ambitious set of manned voyages.
The outlook for bold ventures is bleak. The United States is not abandoning human activities in space. American astronauts will be performing experiments on the International Space Station at least through 2020, but they will have to get there on Russian space craft. The earliest that American commercial companies could carry astronauts into nearby space might be 2015 or 2016.
President Obama has proposed more ambitious manned missions — using technologies yet to be developed — to an asteroid by 2025 and the orbit of Mars by the mid-2030s. Congress is, so far, unpersuaded.
In tough economic times, it is fair to ask why substantial money should be spent on manned space travel, especially since unmanned probes and space telescopes have produced much richer scientific findings. The answer is that manned missions are still the prime symbol of a nation’s prowess in space.
We support President Obama’s idea to send astronauts to places never visited before. Even lesser missions would make clear that the United States is not ceding the peaceful exploration of space at a time when others, notably China, are energetically pursuing their own programs.
NASA’s $18 billion budget is a tiny part of some $3.7 trillion in annual federal spending. Congress ought to provide enough money to keep the United States at the forefront of both human and robotic space exploration.
The shuttles had two crowning achievements: launching and repairing the Hubble Space Telescope, whose breathtaking images have revolutionized astronomy; and assembling the space station, a prodigious engineering feat. But the shuttles never lived up to their original promise of providing cheap, frequent, safe, reliable, trips to low-Earth orbit. And they turned out to be a lot more fragile than anyone realized; two were lost in catastrophic accidents.
We were pleased when President Obama sought to rejuvenate the space program by calling on NASA to develop “game-changing” technologies to provide cheaper and faster travel deep into space. But those plans were reined in when Congress virtually dictated that NASA use existing technologies to build a new heavy-lift rocket and crew capsule needed for such voyages. Many legislators are arguing for returning to the Moon first.
Now House Republicans want to cut NASA’s spending for all programs, both manned and unmanned, by 10 percent below the president’s request, with especially troubling cuts in some of the most important research areas. The House Appropriations Committee has approved a budget that would make deep cuts in planned spending on new space technologies, scale back NASA’s two highest-priority unmanned missions — to Mars and a moon of Jupiter — and eliminate NASA’s most important new space telescope (a successor to the Hubble), which is behind schedule and overbudget. NASA certainly needs to improve its efficiency. But it makes no sense to eviscerate programs that could yield cutting-edge technologies or important scientific findings.
Americans have long ago grown blasé with the shuttle missions. After three decades, we suppose that isn’t surprising. We still believe that this country can do exciting things in space that can inspire a new generation.