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Jon Talton

Analysis and commentary on economic news, trends and issues, with an emphasis on Seattle and the Northwest.

September 17, 2014 at 11:30 AM

Lost in space: NASA and America’s ambitions

It’s one small step for a space program that has taken so many giant leaps backward.

By awarding Boeing a $4.2 billion contract and SpaceX a $2.6 billion deal, the United States government will at least get domestic “taxis” to ferry American astronauts to the International Space Station. Since the space shuttles were grounded in 2011, NASA has depended on Russia to carry astronauts to the station.

It’s better than nothing. But this continues a fundamental shift in the American space program. The nation that landed men on the moon with Project Apollo, one of the greatest achievements of humanity, is stuck in low-earth orbit. Commercial interests will cobble together a profit from government contracts and space tourists. But we achieved low-earth orbit flight in 1962. The ISS is a great achievement, but highly limited — it won’t be the space dock for flights to Mars — and has a limited life span.

Genuine progress such as a lunar colony and Mars missions — when I saw Apollo 11 land in 1969 it seemed inevitable we would be that far by now — has been lost to 30 years of tax cuts and the opportunity costs of endless wars. When America was a real space-faring nation, NASA led and heavily controlled previous space endeavors using the private sector — Apollo required 500 contractors and subcontractors. Now NASA will be more of a customer, buying taxis to stay in place.

Put another way, Barack Obama, who so many saw as the embodiment of John F. Kennedy, will be remembered as the president who finally killed the American space program memorably launched by JFK. That was back in the days of something quaintly called “the national interest.” Kennedy said space was “a high national priority — even though I realize that this is in some measure an act of faith and vision.”

Yes, the old American space program was part of the Cold War competition with the Soviet Union. But it was also integral to, and a massive boost to, American leadership in science, engineering and exploration. It embodied the spirit of exploration that goes beyond a pricetag. Not only that: Someday, humans will need to move beyond this planet for our survival. It might require a quest of centuries, but the quest should be made and “market forces” won’t do it.

Now, apparently, real forward progress will come from nations such as China. As Eric Hoffer said, “Every great cause begins as a movement, becomes a business, and eventually degenerates into a racket.”

You can decide where America stands.

 

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