On Jan. 28, 1986, seven Challenger astronauts "slipped the surly bonds of earth to touch the face of God." But then — tragedy. For the first time, America had lost astronauts in flight.
President Reagan captured the moment:
The astronauts "had a hunger to explore the universe and discover its truths. We’ve grown used to the idea of space, and perhaps we forget that we’ve only just begun. We’re still pioneers. … painful things like this happen. It’s all part of the process of exploration and discovery … part of taking a chance and expanding man’s horizons. The future doesn’t belong to the fainthearted; it belongs to the brave. The Challenger crew was pulling us into the future, and we’ll continue to follow them."
But almost 30 years later, has America followed them? Has our nation taken manned space flight and exploration to the next level?
The answer is a resounding "no." It’s time we change that.
"From out there on the Moon, international politics look so petty. You want to grab a politician by the scruff of the neck and drag him a quarter of a million miles out and say, ‘Look at that, you son of a bitch.’" — Edgar Mitchell, Apollo 14 astronaut
Once upon a time, America’s leaders articulated bold visions for aggressive space programs, making them pillars of their administrations. From Kennedy to Reagan, that leadership captivated Americans and unified a nation.
We charged into the unknown, a country driven to put America on top in the space race, and in doing so, become part of the most exciting time in all of civilization. Our explorers opened up the final frontier, an astounding achievement that taught humankind that no dreams were too big, and that people could aspire to do things greater than themselves. "The sky is the limit" spirit literally became true.
Undisputed American leadership was as ambitious as it was purpose-driven, the result of generations inspired to study math and science like never before, all for the opportunity to do things no one else had ever done — to be on the cutting edge of not just technology, but humanity.
But somewhere along the way, we lost that indomitable spirit.
Despite walking on the moon a mere 66 years after the Wright brothers’ first flight, we haven’t been back in over four decades. Dark side of the moon? Unexplored. Manned missions to Mars and Jupiter’s moons, which hold the promise of life? Off the table. And it’s not for lack of money, as we spend trillions on everything else under the sun, no pun intended.
NASA proudly claims it will return to the moon in 2020, but that begs the question: Why will it take six more years to go back to a place that where we landed a half-century prior? That’s not progress, but failure. The fact that NASA doesn’t know the difference shows that it’s run by space cadets.
Most appalling, America can no longer transport astronauts into space, an unfathomable lack of foresight.
Instead, we are forced to call on the Russians — the same people with whom we are at serious odds. So to access the International Space Station (which we constructed and put into orbit), we must rely on the country we vanquished in the space race.
How is that possible? How could we allow so much American ingenuity to become vaporized? How could our best and brightest kill the Shuttle with no replacement?
And a more down-to-earth question: How does a parent answer a starry-eyed child mesmerized by the lure of outer space who asks, "Dad, how do we get astronauts into space?"
"Well, we put our space ships into museums, so now we have to hitch a ride with the Russians. They used to be our enemy."
If America’s space situation doesn’t lend itself to the euphemism of a deep space probe getting stuck in Uranus, nothing does.
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 valueless pork projects or simply because members of the opposite Party supported them.
With that lack of leadership, where will America’s space program find hope?
Hollywood, of course.
The Science Channel has just kicked off its "Space Week" with great fanfare, airing highly rated programs on all aspects of space, sparking the allure of the unknown to a whole new generation.
Tinseltown, the most influential marketing machine in the universe, continues to ignite people’s fascination with outer space. Iconic films like "Star Wars", "Star Trek", "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" and "2001, A Space Odyssey" all achieved cult status and continue to be immensely popular.
Dramas such as "Apollo 13" and "From The Earth To The Moon" captured the hearts and minds of untold millions. And recent films continue to stoke that passion. ‘Gravity’ blasted off at the box office last year, just like the much-hyped "Interstellar" is now poised to do. These productions are wildly popular because audiences believe addressing eternal questions — Where did we come from? Are we alone? What’s out there? — is a crucial aspect of being human.
Hollywood reflects America, at least in this case. Given the public’s demand to once again push the space envelope, Washington should listen.
"The possibilities are limited only by our imagination and determination, and not by the physics."
— NASA Geologist Michael Duke.
One of the answers to getting Americans in space again is the private sector. Visionaries like Elon Musk (SpaceX), and Richard Branson (Virgin Galactic) are charting new paths into space, adamant that their out-of-this-world dreams will be realized. Their place is an important one.
But let’s face it. We still need America’s resources to accomplish the biggest, most ambitious projects. And for that to occur, our leaders need to understand that space is, and always should be, a priority.
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 — and that they weren’t just traveling through history, but making it.
Defying gravity and making science fiction come true have been uniquely American traits. It’s time for America to break free of its self-imposed black hole and once again claim the space leadership mantle that it not just owned, but invented.
So let’s fire up the engines and blast off while remembering President Reagan’s famous words: "America has always been greatest when we dared to be great … We can follow our dreams to the distant stars."
Chris Freind is an independent columnist and commentator. He can be reached at [email protected].