"We’ve grown used to wonders in this century. It’s hard to dazzle us. But for 25 years the United States space program has been doing just that. We’ve grown used to the idea of space, and perhaps we forget that we’ve only just begun. We’re still pioneers. They, the members of the Challenger crew, were pioneers."
– President Ronald Reagan, Jan. 28, 1986, lamenting the space shuttle Challenger disaster
It’s been 30 years since that tragic day. The unthinkable became gut-wrenching reality, burned so deeply in the national psyche that many recall exactly where they were, and what they were doing, when they heard the news.
Americans’ complacency regarding their space program – shuttle missions had become "routine," and, truth be told, boring to many – was immediately obliterated, replaced by a focus on what went wrong, what we were doing, and most of all, where we were going. And yet, some questions remain unanswered.
In that same speech, Reagan stated, "We’ll continue our quest in space. There will be more shuttle flights … more teachers in space. Nothing ends here; our hopes and our journeys continue."
But three decades later, those words ring hollow. Inconceivably, history’s most powerful nation has voluntarily grounded itself most unceremoniously, abdicating its leadership position in space by outsourcing its astronaut program to, of all peoples, an adversary.
We utterly failed our mission to always push the envelope and, by extension, ourselves, when it came to exploring outer space. At the very least, we owed the Challenger Seven our commitment to continue their work, never forgetting that they sacrificed their lives so that we – not just Americans but humans – could literally discover new worlds.
But instead, we succumbed to paralysis. The space program became buried in bureaucracy, with passionless officials justifying their impotence with endless excuses in a misguided attempt to sanitize all risk. In doing so, we lost the edge that made us great.
And every year that goes by without a bold leader capable of reigniting the fire that rocketed America into the history books, the farther we fall into the black hole of mediocrity, eclipsed by nations using the playbook from our glory days.
America has always been a beacon of hope because, since our birth, we prioritized achieving the impossible – winning our freedom against all odds; maintaining the union despite the bloodshed of the Civil War; defeating history’s worst tyrants; recognizing that all people are free and equal; pioneering manned flight, and, perhaps most amazing, walking on the moon.
But that was then.
Because the shuttle program was killed with no replacement – a mind-blowing mistake that transcends political parties and administrations – America must now rely on the Russians to facilitate our manned space flight program, including accessing the International Space Station that was designed, built and paid for by the United States.
Given the shaky relationship in the best of times between the two nations, it was entirely predictable that when things got heated, the Ruskies would play the space card. And they most certainly did, as illustrated by Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin, who stated, "I suggest to the USA to bring their astronauts to the International Space Station using a trampoline."
And that, more than anything, crystallizes just how far America has regressed.
Those who lived through the space race in the ’50s and ’60s will mistily recount how America was united while launching its boys into the great unknown. Were there political disagreements? Of course, but reaching for the stars made folks realize that they could rise above petty arguments and work together for the greater good.
Pushing the limits of human ability and venturing into what was literally a dream for 50,000 years of humankind gave Americans the justifiable pride that they were indeed special – that they weren’t just traveling through history, but making it.
Despite the path to space being filled with doubts, Americans were committed to seeing it through, no matter the cost. We were a nation driven by the opportunity to put America on top in the space race, and in doing so, become part of arguably the most exciting time in all of civilization. Alan Shepard opened the door to the final frontier a mere 58 years after the Wright brothers’ first flight – an astounding achievement that taught the whole of humankind that no dreams were too big, and that men and women could aspire to do things greater than themselves. They literally made true the spirit that "the sky is the limit."
In addition to exploring worlds beyond our own, the space race also fostered a fierce sense of nationalism that unleashed America’s competitive spirit. And for good reason. The Soviets beat us into orbit, hell-bent on dominating outer space. From that point, it was "game on." And America won. Repeated trips to the moon, deep-space probes, interplanetary missions, permanently manned space stations, and newly discovered technologies that later benefitted Americans in every aspect of their lives.
That undisputed American leadership was as bold as it was purpose driven, the result of generations inspired to study mathematics and science like never before, all for the opportunity to do things no one else had ever done – to be on the cutting edge not just of technology, but of humanity.
And it is that ideal that should be the centerpiece of the 2016 presidential campaign. Sadly, it is not.
The election should be about grand ideas for what we will explore "up there" – lofty goals articulated in such a way that, when successful, bring us together to solve terrestrial problems down here. But neither party is prioritizing the immense commercial, science and security benefits of a space program, let alone realizing its ability to instill national pride. Instead, the cancer of partisan politics eats away at the dream, as space initiatives get defunded in favor of pork projects or simply because members of the opposite party supported them.
How pathetic have America’s "leaders" become when they can’t separate partisan politics for even one minute to agree on that which should be a no-brainer: A rejuvenated space program is so important that it should be a centerpiece of any administration.
Americans of both parties are craving a leader with such a vision, someone who will place the nation’s good before themselves and whose ego isn’t the biggest thing in the universe. Voters may not understand deficits and heath care issues, but they have an innate thirst to discover new things and push boundaries like never before. The massive popularity of movies such as "Interstellar," "Gravity," "The Martian," and even "Star Wars" illustrates, beyond a doubt, that audiences believe addressing eternal questions – where did we come from? Are we alone? What’s out there? – are a crucial aspect of being human. And striving to answer those questions is eminently presidential.
Helen Keller said: "No pessimist ever discovered the secret of the stars or sailed to an uncharted land, or opened a new doorway for the human spirit."
In honor of the Challenger Seven and all who died pursuing the unknown, it’s time to launch a new era of American optimism into space.
Chris Freind is an independent columnist and commentator. His column appears every Wednesday. He can be reached at [email protected].