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PATTERSON: Requiem for a space program

America can’t do anything big until terrestrial problems get fixed

- The Washington Times - Monday, May 30, 2011

There's no question we'll ultimately go [to Mars]. It's a matter of when, not if.

- Lynn Rothschild, astrobiologist at the NASA Ames Research Center, 2005

Even before Apollo 11 blasted off in July 1969, Vice President Spiro Agnew predicted that America would put a man on Mars by the end of the 20th century; he would not be the last to blithely assume that Mars (and beyond) represented the next and inevitable stage in human colonization.

Some, including physicist Stephen Hawking, have argued that transplanet habitation is indeed the only way to ensure the long-term survival of our species, as our current home will not remain lush and verdant forever. Not to worry, says NASA Administrator Michael D. Griffin, who once told the editors at the Washington Post that one day, "there will be more human beings who live off the Earth than on it. ... We may have people living on the moons of Jupiter and other planets."

Really? Our fascination with the exploration of our own moon lasted only from 1961 until 1972, when the Apollo program was canceled because of lack of public interest. George W. Bush's proposed return mission, Constellation, was nixed by his successor. The space shuttle program is winding down with a whimper; after Atlantis makes one more foray into the heavens in July, the United States will once again be an earthbound nation.

This no doubt distresses optimists who have long foreseen American shopping malls on the red planet but have failed to understand the unique cultural context in which the U.S. space program was born - manned space exploration was entirely a Cold War creature, only one aspect of the multifaceted competition between superpowers for the hearts and minds of the world's peoples.

Sputnik, the first artificial satellite, was launched in 1957 and became a major public-relations coup for the Soviets, who boasted that the technological marvel proved the superiority of their political system. Americans shuddered to think that a Soviet surrogate hovered over them in the night sky, and that anxiety drove them to up the ante and beat the Soviets to the moon in 1969, an unprecedented feat of engineering that reaped untold propaganda rewards for the United States.

But America wasn't finished. In the 1980s, President Reagan threatened to weaponize space with his proposed Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), a satellite-based system for targeting and destroying incoming missile attacks. Many of Reagan's domestic critics scoffed at the possibility that it could work, but the Soviets were not so sure - after Apollo, they had ceased to doubt American ingenuity in matters of space.

SDI was a crucial bargaining chip that Reagan played masterfully in his negotiations with the Soviets. In the end, they concluded they couldn't keep up with a terrestrial arms race with the United States, let alone another space race. Within a few years, the Cold War was won, and America's supremacy in space had proved key to the U.S. victory.

Yet when the Soviet threat vanished, so, too, did the raison d'etre for the U.S. space program. Shuttle missions became boring and routine, with not a few Americans wondering what we were getting out of such a costly and dangerous enterprise. NASA struggled to find a clear mission and regain the reverence it had once enjoyed.

Then the first decade of the 21st century gave us an enemy that lurked in caves, not orbit. And debt driven by entitlement promises made in the 1930s and 1960s began to overwhelm the nation's finances even as two presidents, one from each party, foolishly added to them. Now, in 2011, not only is there no reason for a space program, there is no money for one, either.

Countries that require billions of borrowed dollars each day to meet their obligations soon have trouble projecting power across the globe, much less the stars. Countries that carry $14 trillion in debt do not go to Mars - they hide from creditors and, maybe quietly, maybe messily, expire.

Matt Patterson is a contributor to "Proud to Be Right: Voices of the Next Conservative Generation" (HarperCollins, 2010).

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