- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 7, 2011

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Americans have one last chance to share the pioneer spirit that has defined the nation. The final launch of the space shuttle from its Kennedy Space Center launch pad is scheduled for today, and the spectacle of the gleaming spacecraft thundering into the blue Florida sky on a column of fire and smoke is as much a part of Americana as the fireworks of Independence Day. It could be a long time before such an event happens again, leaving us to wonder: Who lost space?

As Atlantis completes her final flight, the shuttle program will have reached the end of its useful mission as a low-Earth-orbit delivery vehicle after 135 flights over 30 years. There is no clear plan for a next-generation replacement. That can be chalked up to a failure of vision; it didn’t have to be this way.

In 2010, President Obama canceled the shuttle’s successor, the Constellation program, which was designed to carry Americans back to the moon and, ultimately, to Mars. In its place, the president pledged that NASA would receive funding for manned missions to an asteroid in the 2020s and then Mars in the 2030s. Such promises are easy to make and easier to break, especially in times of economic hardship. The fact that Mr. Obama was willing to write off the $10 billion already invested in Constellation indicates that his opposition was not a matter of money but ideology.

His predecessors demonstrated a genuine affinity for America’s urge to explore - whether the frontier be geographic or scientific. In an attempt to disprove American exceptionalism, Mr. Obama has devoted his administration to snuffing the spark of ambition that has set the nation apart from all others. What critics on the left loathe most about the national character is that our countrymen have earned the right to chest-thump by their achievements.

As the red, white and blue disappears from the space race, Russia becomes the sole country with a functioning low-orbit vehicle. However, China is preparing to carry its red flag into the heavens, and India is readying its own space program. The frontier belongs to the most adventurous.

Fortunately, the Obama administration has not yet figured out how to regulate the American dream. Space may be lost for now by those with limited vision, but entrepreneurs like Burt Rutan may fill the gap. They have succeeded in sending a privately designed and financed craft to the edge of space and are not waiting for government to provide the means for pushing back the outer limits of exploration.

Even as foreign nations prepare to fly past the United States in the conquest of space, if the past is any indicator of the future, we’ll be back.

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