The liftoff of the space shuttle Endeavor received a fair amount of press today for one reason: the appearance of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords to cheer on her husband, who captained the shuttle. The near miraculous recovery of Giffords, who was shot in the head by a crazed assassin in January, is an inspirational story. Americans truly are united in applauding her courage as she strives to recover from her terrible injuries.
In the aftermath of that the news media and most Democratic politicians lectured shooting Americans incessantly that the shooting of the Arizona Democrat was the result of the uncivil discourse that had characterized the post-Obamacare/Tea Party political debate. But now that President Obama is hosting rappers who advocated the burning of his predecessor in the White House, civility is off the table.
But what should be discussed today and tomorrow is something that is being ignored amid the Giffords hoopla: namely, the decline of the U.S. space program. While the space shuttles are outdated vehicles that probably have no more reason to be in space than a 1980 Plymouth Volare should be on a highway today, the American failure to invest in a more advanced system in time to replace the Endeavor is nothing short of tragic.
Since the heyday of the space program in the 1960s, most Americans seem to have lost interest in exploring the heavens. And so have our politicians who have treated NASA as a budgetary stepchild for over a generation. While President Obama’s cancellation of the plans to return to the Moon last year (admirably dissected by Robert Zubrin in the June 2010 issue of COMMENTARY) set in concrete the decision to scale back our efforts and made it likely that the next manned space flight won’t take place until the very distant future, his disheartening lack of vision was merely the culmination of decades of neglect.
The notion that in the coming years the only way for Americans and American scientific efforts will return to space is by the purchasing of a ticket on a Russian vehicle is depressing beyond all measure. Back in the 1970s, when the first joint U.S.-Soviet space activities were commenced, American scientists considered the Russian stuff to be closer to the primitive imaginings of a Jules Verne novel than NASA’s equipment (or at least that’s what astronomer Robert Jastrow told my class at Columbia at the time). But after the Endeavor hopefully returns safely from her mission, Americans will be reduced to mere passengers on foreign expeditions. While we should all be cheering Gifford’s recovery, some of us will be shedding a tear for the sorry end to a chapter of American greatness.