EDITORIAL: America, we have a problem

Washington watches as space age flies into history

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Traffic stopped Tuesday morning, and people watched the Space Shuttle Discovery make a low flyby of the nation’s capital. The veteran spacecraft was ferried atop a Boeing 747 to its final assignment as a museum exhibit. It was a fitting farewell to another symbol of America’s former glory.

Not a decade ago, the United States claimed the title of the world’s premier space-faring nation. The space-shuttle fleet was the primary means of sending man into orbit. There even were periodic discussions about changing the name of the U.S. Air Force to the Aerospace Force. That ended last July when the space shuttle Atlantis completed its last mission. Now if Americans want to travel in space, they go up as passengers with the rest of the cargo, and it is the air arm of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard that calls itself an aerospace force.

There was a time when the space program was a symbol of American achievement, a source of pride and inspiration to generations. Those days are gone. In his 2011 budget, President Obama canceled NASA’s Constellation project, the package of launch and landing vehicles that were to replace the aging shuttle fleet to carry Americans into space. The White House still paid lip service to manned space exploration and played up plans to land Americans on Mars sometime around 2030. “I expect to be around to see it,” Mr. Obama declared two years ago, before zeroing out all planned Mars programs in his latest budget. Meanwhile, China is actively planning its own visit to the red planet.

President Obama spent as much in a single year on his failed 2009 stimulus program as the entire NASA budget, in today’s dollars, from 1958 to the present. That includes the Mercury and Gemini missions, project Apollo and the moon landings, the space shuttles and space stations, the Hubble telescope and everything else NASA has done. Would Americans trade “the Eagle has landed” for a “shovel-ready” future? NASA’s most recent achievement has been growing algae in sewage for biofuel. The agency has become a pale parody of its former self.

People in Washington were transfixed by the circling shuttle. Cars stopped in the streets, workers rushed out of buildings. They pointed, applauded, some even cried. There was a sense of excitement, but also of deep loss. It was a last, fleeting glimpse of a vehicle conceived at a time when the United States knew no boundaries, when the spirit was young and fresh, when frontiers existed to be explored, and challenges to be met and overcome. The flyby was a metaphor for the entire space effort, a brief moment of excitement when Americans looked to the skies. It soon faded on the horizon and was gone.

The Washington Times

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