“We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.”
With that statement, JFK summed up the American commitment to the Space Race and to the exploration of the great unknown beyond our planet. Exploration has been part of the American spirit since the motley crews of pilgrims and indentured servants made their way across the Atlantic to settle a new world. It is in our blood to seek the unknown, and to seek bigger and better things. Landing on the Moon was an achievement that made Lewis and Clark’s expedition look like a walk in the park.
Yet, despite the zeal with which we travelled to the Moon, and beyond, half a century ago, NASA has had a mixed legacy in recent years. Some have praised the program’s ongoing commitment to scientific discovery, while others have painted it as an irrelevant and obsolete drain on our national budget. The Space Shuttle, a feat of engineering that was ahead of its time when it was launched in 1982, is now a sorely outdated design that is hugely expensive to maintain.
Now, after 29 years, NASA is finally putting the Space Shuttle program to bed. Today will be the last launch (weather permitting) of a NASA Space Shuttle when Atlantis takes off at Kennedy Space Center to deliver supplies to the International Space Station.
What will this mean for the future of the American space program? Presidents Bush and Obama proclaimed that a new series of leaner and more cost effective space craft are in the works to replace the Space Shuttle, but budgetary concerns could interfere with these plans. Already, a new House appropriations bill seeks to cut NASA funding by $1.6 billion (a cost cut that also threatens the development of the , which would be more powerful than the Hubble telescope).
The future of American space exploration could lie in the private sector, as I’ve discussed before. Regardless, it is a bit sobering to consider the passing of an era. When I was growing up, NASA astronauts seemed like great American heroes, tantamount to cowboys in space. We explored space not because it would bring us any immediate economic returns (it did quite the opposite) but because we yearned for knowledge. In this way, we led the world and won the admiration of millions, or billions.
American ingenuity is one of our greatest assets, a fundamental foundation of our national reputation. In the 1960s, we decided we were going to land on the moon, and we did it – as JFK so eloquently put it, not because it was easy, but because it was hard. That should be the mantra of every American – we do things not because they are easy, but because they are hard. This way of thinking is pertinent if we are going to restore our reputation, which has weakened globally following a decade of wars and the Great Recession.
This isn’t a call to restore funding for our space program, nor is it meant to be a tirade about the decline of our country. It is simply an observation of the end of an era. With every end there is a beginning. Where we go next is up to us.