Recently, much has been made of the Space Shuttle’s retirement as being the end of an era. With the talks over the looming debt ceiling dominating the headlines, it only makes sense that space exploration would be sent even further towards the back burner. As private companies bid to overtake NASA in developing the Shuttle’s successor, the media portrays it as the end, albeit temporarily, of the American space program for the first time in its history. In reality, the program has undergone several interruptions before and has been relatively latent for the past 40 years.
Foremost among the NASA restructurings is one like the one happening now, but largely forgotten. In the early 1970s following the end of Apollo, NASA downsized significantly and experienced a nine-year gap in manned missions from the last Apollo mission in 1972 to the first Shuttle mission in 1981. Since the end of Apollo, space exploration has lost the luster it once had. Once the source of inspiration for a new generation of children and adults alike to learn about math and science and to take humanity to new heights, it became seemingly one more bureaucratic organization within the U.S. government.
I am reminded of this each time I visit the Space Center in Houston. Just over an hour drive from my house, I have been there several times, especially during my childhood. While touring the reconstructions of spacecraft and taking a trolley tour through Johnson Space Center, I couldn’t help but notice it being a nostalgia trip to the 1960s. Tourists hear a Beach Boys song as they pass by a rocket manufactured during the time the song first topped the charts. They can also sit in a mock cockpit of a spacecraft that is over 40 years old. There’s even a large Omega watch clock on the wall that boasts it was used by the Moon astronauts. Clearly, the space program has been only another practically irrelevant organization compared to its 1960s heyday.
I’d like to see a return to these days. Almost precisely 50 years after we successfully met JFK’s goal of putting a man on the moon by the end of the 1960s just over a month after the U.S. had put its first man in space, why shouldn’t we able to put a human on Mars by the end of this decade? We have more technology in our cell phones today than the Apollo astronauts did in their entire spacecraft, so it shouldn’t be an unrealistic goal. We just have to regain that motivation from a half-century ago and ensure NASA is no longer stagnant.
With a $14.5 trillion national debt and $1.5 trillion deficit, the consensus among many is to drive NASA’s status even further into oblivion. They see space exploration as a waste of money and something that’s done just for fun when the economy is good and the government has some extra money to blow. Coupled with the demise of the Soviet Union and no major incentive to achieve a common goal, Americans have lost interest in space exploration. But before we buy into these views, let’s take a look at what space exploration has done for the economy and mankind.
We have had a plethora of inventions come from the space program that are used in our everyday lives, such as GPS, defibrillators, memory foam, Velcro, cordless drills, and many more. One can see top-down images of anywhere in the world using free software on their computer, or find their way to any house in the country using a device that only costs a few hundred dollars. While estimates vary on the return for every dollar spent on NASA, it is in fact hard to quantify because of all the spinoffs and inspiration provided by NASA in addition to the direct benefits.
Rather than penny pinch, Congress should focus on investing in the future of America, and space exploration should be a major part of it. This will not only inspire a new generation of Americans into math and science and maintain America’s status as the world’s major superpower, but will launch our economy into a new frontier of prosperity.