- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 9, 2011

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

The return to Earth of Discovery on Wednesday marked the forthcoming end of NASA’s space shuttle era and the beginning of an uncertain future for the agency. The venerable spacecraft will be retired with 148 million miles on the odometer, highlighting how the world’s premier space organization will soon be grounded as the world prepares to celebrate the 50th anniversary of manned spaceflight in the spring.

On April 12, 1961, the Soviet Union shocked the world when it propelled cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin into space, the first human to do so. Communism’s propagandists exploited this impressive feat as a talking point in favor of collectivism. The advantage didn’t last long, as astronaut Alan Shepard became the first American in space three weeks later. Since that moment, the United States took the lead in the space race and never looked back. The Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programs culminated in a manned landing on the moon on July 20, 1969.

The space shuttle program, which began with the launch of Columbia on April 12, 1981 - the 20th anniversary of Gagarin’s historic flight - is set to end with Atlantis’ voyage in June after 30 years and 135 missions.

Following a half-century that challenged the boundaries of human achievement, President Obama has dramatically lowered his expectations. Instead of traditional space exploration missions, some commercial-spaceflight development, an absurd obsession with global-warming research and - bizarrely - Muslim outreach dominate the administration’s attention. The crash of NASA’s Glory climate satellite on liftoff last week was an apt symbol of the dismal state of an agency adrift.

A year ago, Mr. Obama canceled the Constellation program, which was to produce the next generation of rockets designed to send Americans into Earth orbit and then back to the moon with the ultimate goal a manned voyage to Mars. The investment of $10 billion has been wasted.

In a House budget hearing last week, NASA administrator Charles F. Bolden Jr. put the best face on the Obama plan to get the agency out of the rocket business and channel funds to private industry for the construction of a new generation of boosters, citing “tough fiscal times.” For the president to pose as a fiscal hawk after blowing trillions on useless “shovel-ready” projects is hardly credible.

NASA’s mission has never been one of dollars and cents but of inspiration. By pushing back the boundaries of human imagination, America’s best and brightest are motivated and challenged to pursue scientific and engineering breakthroughs. To be a great country, we must do great things. We must not rest on achievements four decades past.

The idea of putting America’s pre-eminence on display for all to see must prove irksome to a “world citizen.” That is, perhaps, why Mr. Obama seems determined to retask the space agency from its exceptional enterprise toward mundane research used to prop up the administration’s wealth redistribution plans. Children once learned to reach for the stars with the knowledge that it was possible to achieve their dreams. Now they are taught not to look beyond the present, as global-warming-induced catastrophes loom just over the horizon.

Part of the challenge of repairing our economy is a restoration of American exceptionalism. Accomplishing great deeds beyond this planet would be a great place to start.


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