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Wednesday, Sep 17, 2014
Douglas MacKinnon Columns

Cuts to space program leave U.S. adrift

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On July 20, a minuscule percentage of our population paused to celebrate or ponder the most glorious technological achievement in the history of humankind. That being the Apollo 11 moon landing and Neil Armstrong’s historic first step onto its surface 45 years ago.

The heroism and bravery of Armstrong and his crew mates Michael Collins and Buzz Aldrin — along with the astronauts who flew before and after that historic feat — should serve as an enduring act of pride for our nation. But the fact that we have not been back since Gene Cernan knelt on the lunar surface in December 1972 and traced his daughter’s initials into its dust should serve as a marker of shame for the politicians who turned their backs on the promise of what could have been.

For my first published book, I had the honor to speak with all 12 men who walked on the moon. To a person, they all agreed with the quote from famed Russian scientist Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, born in 1857, who said: “Earth is the cradle of humanity, but one cannot remain in the cradle forever.”

For many people in and out of the manned spaceflight business, the moon is the obvious, most accessible and most practical stepping-stone to our solar system, and yet our “leaders” abandoned it because its rewards were not tangible enough or its pursuit would not generate enough votes.

Speaking of the manned spaceflight business, for all practical purposes we no longer have one. Embarrassingly — and quite foolishly — we now have to pay the Russians upwards of $70 million per astronaut to take our people to a space station funded for the most part by U.S. taxpayers. On this subject, Michael Griffin, the former head of NASA, called it a “hostage situation.”

We find ourselves in this position because Barack Obama is not a fan of human spaceflight. Preferring as he said when he was running for president in 2007, to take the money from NASA and put it into his (still nonexistent) educational programs.

Precisely because of this shortsightedness, back in 2010, Neil Armstrong, James Lovell (the commander of Apollo 13), and Gene Cernan spoke out in an open letter questioning Obama’s policy.

The astronauts said: The president’s “decision to cancel the Constellation program, its Ares 1 and Ares V rockets, and the Orion spacecraft, is devastating. … For The United States, the leading space-faring nation for nearly half a century, to be without carriage to low Earth orbit and with no human exploration capability to go beyond Earth orbit for an indeterminate time into the future, destines our nation to become one of second- or even third-rate stature.”

Cernan later dialed up that criticism. He said “over the past four years, Obama has resorted to leading from behind and asks Americans to settle for a new normal that diminishes our position in the world. Not only is he willing to sacrifice the United States’ pre-eminence in space exploration, but he seems unconcerned that our economic and national security might falter as well. It is not just about space, it is about the country.”

Is President Obama entirely to blame for the dangerous predicament we find ourselves in? Not at all. He is simply the worst offender in a list of presidents going back to Lyndon Johnson who cared little or not at all about the critical need for the United States to establish and maintain preeminence in space.

Because nature hates a vacuum, The People’s Republic of China is eagerly stepping into the void. As China now openly sets its sights upon everything from Earth orbit to the moon’s surface, it’s important to remember its entire manned space program is controlled by its military and every objective is geared toward creating a military edge over the United States.

Just last week, China tested another missile designed solely to destroy satellites in Earth orbit. Why? Because they know that no nation on Earth is more dependent upon its satellites for national and economic security than the United States.

Toward that end, China has publicly stated it plans to establish human bases as well as commerce on the moon. When that day comes, we may have real reason to regret both abandoning the moon and mothballing our manned spaceflight program.

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