It was exactly 42 years ago today that man accomplished his greatest feat of exploration: landing a man on another world, the Moon. Since Neil Armstrong's “giant leap for mankind,” 11 other men would set foot on the Moon before the U.S. government decided to pull the plug on the Apollo Program, and thus man's greatest adventure.
Now, 42 years later, NASA finds itself unable to even launch astronauts into orbit, much less to the Moon. So, where did things go wrong?
Answer: Earth politics.
In 1961, president John F. Kennedy famously declared that America would land a man on the Moon and return him to Earth before the end of the decade. While that may have been just talk in another time, before or after, in the 1960s, it was serious business as the Cold War was on the verge of becoming a hot one. While coming about with neutral aims, rocketry quickly became a military science. By the 1950s and the advent of nuclear weapons, the capabilities of a given nation's rockets was a symbol of that country's power. The longer the rockets could fly, the greater the capability of delivering atomic death over vast distances. When the USSR launched Sputnik into orbit in 1957, it was obvious that Soviet rocketry was ahead of American capabilities. Theoretically, with rockets capable of launching payloads into orbit, the Soviets could rain death from the heavens of any city in the world. So, in order to keep the balance of power eve, American scientists had to work fast to equal their Soviet rivals. And they did. However, after the end of the Space Race, which America won by landing Apollo 11 on the Moon, the desire to compete subsided to the point that going to the Moon for the sake of science was seen as a waste of money. By the mid 70s, Americans and Russians would cooperate on the first international space mission.
Oh, yes, then there's the question of money.
In 1961 when President Kennedy made his famous pledge, the economy was on the upswing, a trend that would continue through 1966. . However, even as the first Apollo rockets were lifting off into space, there was trouble below. By the late 60s, the cost of President Johnson's Great Society welfare programs and the Vietnam War were combining to overburden even America's economy,. By the end of the decade, America was into a recession that would last, with small rises but many more plunges, into the 1980s. Simply put, the money as well as the public's appetite for space exploration (remember, we won the Space race with Apollo 11) dried up. In fact, in 1966, the first year there were signs of sputtering in the economy, NASA's total budget share of 5.5% of the total federal budget was achieved. By the mid 70s, it would be less than 1%, where it remains today.
Atlantis lifts off for the final shuttle mission. How long will we have to wait to see Ameicans fly into space again?
So, as space shuttle Atlantis prepares to land after the final space shuttle mission as I am writing this, so goes America's status as the dominant power in space. Yes, there will still be launches to compliment the myriad of satellites we already have up in space, there is an undeniable loss of prestige at the inability to send humans into orbit. Even worse, there is no successor to the space shuttle in the near future, either. President Obama already said that he wants to have humans on Mars by 2030 but, at the rate we're going with partisan politics and budget woes, not to mention a possible default, America's long-held dominance of space is becoming a thing of the past and, with every passing day without an all-American manned mission, will be even harder to reassert in the future.
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