The Apollo moon landing program was a bold, visionary and unqualified success. The space shuttle program, by contrast, has been a letdown (“America’s space program is crashing,” Commentary, July 7).
As originally conceived, the shuttle was intended to make space travel routine by providing inexpensive weekly flights to an orbiting space station that would serve as a base for exploring our cosmic neighbors. Instead, the shuttle flew an average of just five times a year, lost 14 lives and cost $2 billion per flight. Its legacy is a scaled-back space lab in near-Earth orbit that our astronauts no longer can reach without hitching a ride aboard a Russian rocket.
The shuttle has been hailed for launching the Hubble Space Telescope and the Magellan and Galileo spacecraft, but these could have been launched instead via rocket like the Cassini and New Horizons probes. Meanwhile, the Saturn V rocket that took astronauts to the moon and launched Skylab into orbit was scrapped in deference to the shuttle. Nearly four decades later, we still have no heavy-lift booster capable of returning people to the moon.
As someone who grew up in the Washington area and visited the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum frequently, I have always been fascinated by space. I remember being mesmerized by the Imax film “To Fly” and by Charles and Ray Eames’ documentary short film “Powers of Ten.” I remember excitedly touching the moon rock near the museum’s entrance and gazing at the Apollo lunar and command modules and space suits with a wondrous sense that I, too, could someday tour space. I shared in the excitement as NASA’s unmanned Pioneer 10 and 11 and Voyager 1 and 2 spacecraft toured Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune, and the Viking 1 and 2 landers gave us an up-close look at the surface of Mars.
Today, it saddens me that my son will grow up with dreams of exploring space that will seem less realistic than mine were in the years immediately following Neil Armstrong’s “one small step.”
A thousand years from now, no one will care about most of the political concerns that occupy our attention today. But our distant descendants will learn when humans first set foot on other worlds. Will the 1969 moon landing be remembered as the acme of America’s fleeting world leadership, or will we continue to lead by taking the first small steps onto other worlds as well?
It’s time for us to be bold once again and take mankind’s next “giant leap” - this time, to Mars.
STEPHEN A. SILVER