Finally, after suffering for decades under a crippling orbital space launch capability with our National Space Program, at the end of 2010 we’ll finally join that premier circle of nations that have no means of launching a man into orbit. This exclusive club is made up of only Columbia, Botswana, Liberia, Ecuador, Papua New Guinea, and only about 188 other countries that have no capability of sending humans into orbit on their own.
Some of you may be surprised, or even concerned about this. After all, since manned space missions began in 1961 only three nations (including the US) have successfully developed this capability. Luckily the other two nations are our dear, close chums Russia and China. So, since we still have obligations to work on the International Space Station, when we send our astronauts up there, all we have to do is hitch a ride, and thus proving that Douglas Adams was something of a prophet when he wrote The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.
So, there’s really no problem. Unless for some reason you think paying $50 million dollars per seat per launch to the Russians until the free market develops a private sector orbital launch capability is a problem. If, as a nation, we find ourselves a little short on cash, then maybe we can promise the Russians that we’ll wash their rocket after we’re through. Or maybe set them up on a date with our really cute friend. We’ll figure out something.
This is one of those rare areas where I think most rational Americans, and maybe even Rand Paul, can come together and agree on: that the space program is a source of national pride, and has been since Lance Armstrong cycled his way to the moon. Or was it Neil Armstrong? One of those guys. Definitely someone named Armstrong. I’m venturing to say that most, if asked, would not eagerly abandon the capability that has been a hallmark of American know-how for nearly 50 years.
To be fair, the President’s plan does not abandon NASA. The intent of the President is to develop deep space exploration capabilities that would allow the US to ultimately send a manned mission to Mars by 2030. So he’s proposing a realignment of NASA’s priorities (and actually slightly increases NASA’s budget). But I look at it like a guy who, in an effort to save up for a trip to Europe, decides to ditch his car to save on travel expenses, using the shrewd strategy of bumming a ride with his mates whenever he needs to get to work. In the end, he’s still a guy without a car. And sometime his friends may not be the most reliable. Russia might be recovering from a hangover when we need them, and China might decide to bump up the cost of the ride to cover the increasing cost of cigarettes.
The bottom line is, we’ve decided to walk away from something that at one time was a great source of national pride. Maybe it’s the right thing to do, but I have trouble seeing how. Maybe I need to dust off the Hitchhiker’s Trilogy again to see what the next step in US Space Exploration policy will be.