US forfeits technological prowess

Photo from www.nasa.gov
NASA called it the most successful manned flight ever achieved. Forty years ago this week, the astronauts of Apollo 15 left their lunar module, hopped into a four-wheeled rover and took a joyride across the surface of the Moon.

Fast forward four decades and the US has retired their shuttle program. They’ve thrown the towel into the space race. Mission 135, the last one operated by NASA, blasted off three weeks ago.

In the 1960s and 70s, America was considered the most technologically advanced country in the world. After losing the race to send the first man to space to the Soviets, America not just caught up with them but surpassed them by leaps and bounds. America became the first country to send a man to the Moon, but they didn’t just stop right there. They did the unthinkable. Not only did they put a man on the Moon, but they gave him a go-kart and told him to go have fun.

What became of the America of the post-Kennedy race to the Moon? Forty years after astronaut James B. Irwin rode around that orbiting rondelle with his pedal to the Moon metal, has the country fallen short of the dream that was once reckoned all too obtainable? After the Apollo missions, the future seemed certain: Mars, then the rest of the Milky Way. Flying cars, hooverboards, Moonside vacation plantations and laser-eyed armies of robotic cyborgs. Okay, maybe not the last part. But what does America have to show for it, 40 years after man landed on the Moon and took a spin?

If you were to walk into any classroom in the 1970s and ask the boys and girls who grew up with eyes glued to the Moon landing what they thought America would be like today, they’d echo the same thing that scientists were saying: permanent Moon bases and space taxis to the sky.

It’s 2011, however, and there is no US space shuttle program. Forty years ago they wanted to do more than just go to the Moon. They wanted to explore the boundaries of the solar system and race throughout the Milky Way. But where do the youth of today see themselves decades into their future in twenty-first century America?

The newest generation of Americans are taught not to look towards the International Space Station but towards Wall Street. Children aren’t inspiring to be the next Buzz or Neil; it’s a bunch of Buffet Juniors in training. Is there that much hope for America’s economic future that that much of an investment is worth pursuing in lieu of continuing to blast into the beyond with technological wizardry and the seemingly unthinkable?

Twenty years after the Cold War fizzled out, the arch enemy America found in Russia is taking charge. If NASA wants astronauts to go back to the International Space Station after the retirement of the space shuttle program, it will cost around $60 million per seat for US scientists to ride shotgun with cosmonauts.

"It is a shame that for many of us that simply want to preserve, protect, and defend our leadership in space that we see NASA paying for rides to the Space Station from countries that may not have America's best interests at heart," Republican Texas Congressman Ralph Hall said last month.

Hall added to the Science, Space, and Technology Committee that American “engineers, technicians and scientists . . . despite the absence of good leadership from this White House, strive to dream big and carry on the legacy of those that came before them.”

For a generation of Baby Boomers that witnessed the Apollo missions firsthand and another several decades of American boys and girls committed to someday strapping themselves into a shuttle and set off to the stars, that dream was a big one but one nonetheless thought obtainable. Has the country as a whole retired that fantasy, though?

Prior to last night, the entire international economy was looking towards America for answers. China was telling the US to be “responsible.” The largest debtor nation in the world had run out of money and economists say the worst has yet to come. The humiliation doesn’t just stop there though. With the American dollar quickly becoming devalued and a depression seeming imminent, China is not only showing America how to use their check book but how to man a shuttle. Following the Soviets in usurping America from interplanetary glory, China is investing into a massive space program that would rival the one absent in America.

The Moon; Mars; Venus. That’s where the Chinese are looking to go. Four decades after Americans and Russians put a man in space, China finally became the third country in the world to do so in 2003. Three years later they had a probe going to the Moon and in 2008 the Chinese walked in space. With the US seemingly abandoning the race to the stars, China, who has a space station in the works intended to be opened in 2020, has joined Russia as the two dominant aerospace entrepreneurs.

"We've been there before," President Obama said about a return mission to the Moon. He is looking at “bigger” things, like astronauts on an asteroid and maybe ultimately Mars. Without a shuttle to get astronauts into space, those “think big” initiatives are just a mere dream, much like a Moon landing was before the Kennedy administration. If Americans want to even transcend beyond the troposphere, it’ll cost $60 million plus to the Ruskies.

"Space leadership is highly symbolic of national capabilities and international influence, and a decline in space leadership will be seen as symbolic of a relative decline in US power and influence," Scott Pace, an associate NASA administrator in the George W. Bush, said to ABC News.

There’s no forgetting what America has accomplished in the decades since the Apollo missions brought man to the man. There has been the Internet. The electric autombile. Vaccinations, e-books and Bruce Springsteen. Arby’s, Apple, Microsoft and the DVD. But where is that car that flies, the space station in the stars and the hotel on Mars?

Unless America gets back in the game, that will be a chapter for the Chinese history books.