Lost Direction of the US Space Program
Credit: Mr Miscellanious via WikiCommons

When I was a freshman in college in the late 80s, I wrote a short paper for an English Composition and Writing class that questioned the direction of the US space program. I still have it. It’s horrible. If you want to have a good laugh, go back and read some of your old essays from college.

At that time, many of the same conversations that are going on today about the US space program were happening also. It was just a few years after the Challenger disaster and the shuttle fleet had been grounded for about three years.

I remember watching a program on 20/20 during that time that questioned everything and how we had become lost since the moon landings. It has only gotten worse in the last 2 decades since all of that soul searching in the late 80s.

In some regards it was inevitable that a fickle American public and self-centered politicians would lose interest in space exploration. The public is led like cattle to whatever the mass media wants it to think, and the politicians do not have enough foresight to see past their next election.

Forty years after we placed men on the moon several times, the US space program has actually regressed, humiliatingly so. We are at the point now where we have no vehicle to transport our astronauts into space. Now we rely on the Russians to get us there, all while they try to reconstitute their broken sphere of influence in Eastern Europe at the expense of the freedom of millions of people.

How did we get here? The reasons are complicated and there is plenty of blame to go around.

Lack of Leadership

Where to begin? Not since Kennedy has there been any real direction or challenge from any White House. After we reached the moon, the politicians lost interest. We beat the Russians. We won, but what did we win? A derelict space program apparently.

Beating the Russians to the moon might have been the worst thing that ever happened to the US Space Program.

It was the threat and embarrassment of the launch of the Russian satellite Sputnik in 1957 that spurred the United States into action, but once that threat had passed and the goal of landing on the moon had been met, it seems like the politicians had no more use for the program. After we "won" politicians saw the NASA budget as an easy place to make a grab for funds.

Certain politicians of a certain political persuasion are more to blame than others because of their penchant to only want to spend government funds on social issues without seeing the big picture.  They always seems to lose sight of the fact that the space program has been responsible for more innovation and technological advances than any other industry, and those advances have been transferred to countless other industries making the return on investment in the space program incalculable. 

However, both political parties are to blame. If we aren't wasting money on useless stimulus programs, we are being led into useless and ill-advised wars.  In the last decade alone, well over a trillion dollars has been wasted in Afghanistan and Iraq and what do we have to show for it?

More importantly, it was a national security issue, but none of that mattered. We won, remember? Or did we?

"Why should we spend millions and millions of dollars to go look at rocks?"

But it wasn’t just the politicians. NASA itself made a series of critical blunders during this time.

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The Shuttle Program

Lost Direction of the US Space Program
Credit: NASA

By the early 1970s, NASA had successfully land 15 men on the moon through various Apollo missions, but in 1974, the remaining three Apollo missions were cancelled and the program was shelved.

From that point, NASA itself lost site. Without the national interest in a space race, they made critical errors in direction with their decreasing budget. The worst of all was to put all of their eggs into the shuttle program

A reusable space vehicle seemed like a good idea at the time but the limitations of the shuttle itself never seemed to have been considered. The space shuttle could do very little except launch and orbit the planet. The idea was to have a vehicle that could supply a planned space station, however that would be delayed by decades.

The oversold what the shuttle could do, exaggerated how it could be used, and overestimatedLost Direction of the US Space ProgramCredit: Kennedy Space Center http://grin.hq.nasa.gov/ABSTRACTS/GPN-2004-00012.html how often it could be safely launched which would eventually lead to the Challenger explosion in January 1986.

The space shuttle's primary use was placing satellites into orbit and conducting a few scientific experiments. However, it could only stay in orbit for 2 weeks at a time because of supply limitations, so the American space program lost critical time and experience in space.

Meanwhile, the Russian had developed their space station Mir and were continuing the set manned space records.

Not that a space station was the answer.

The whole idea of having a space station never had any real goal other than bragging rights. There was only so much you could do in a cramped station in orbit.

Abandoning the Saturn 5 Rocket

After the Apollo program was cancelled, so was the most powerful and reliable rocket ever produced, the Saturn 5 rocket. There was no replacement for it. After all, the shuttle was going to be able to carry all of our astronauts and cargo into space now. There was no back-up program.

So NASA took a perfectly functioning launch system and shelved it.

Compare that to how the Russians operated. Once they found a technology that worked, they stick with it. They still use Soyuz capsules to take their astronauts (and ours) into orbit.

Rather than using proven technology and advancing step-by-step to the ultimate goal of having astronauts permanently stationed on other worlds, NASA sought to reinvent the wheel time and time again.

Only in the last decade has NASA begun to a program to replace the Saturn 5 with the RS-25 as a new launch vehicle. And yes, like the Russians, the American program is returning to the use of space capsules to get astronauts into orbit. It’s as if that shuttle period never existed.

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Final Thoughts

Forty years after the last man walked on the moon, NASA has no way to get astronauts into orbit currently. Who would have imagined that in 1973?

If you watch movies made during the late 1960 and 1970s such as 2001: A Space Odyssey, we were supposed to be much further along than we are now according to science fiction writers.

When Blade Runner came out in 1982, that futuristic world of hover cars and human robots was set in 2017. We are nowhere near that level of technology.

I would argue that we could be if we had kept up the pace of the 60 and 70s. Going into space and to other worlds is difficult and there are many challenges to overcome, but this spurs new inventions and technologies. This was obviously what the writers at that time were thinking when they came up with these futuristic movies.

And why wouldn’t they think this way? Over the last decade, the space program went from nothing to putting men on another world. But they never took into account all of the missteps and mismanagement that occurred after the Apollo program.  No one would have predicted that the program would be in the shape it is in now in 2014. It is pathetic and embarrassing.

Based on the progress we made in the early days of the program, the United States should have a permanent base on the moon by now. A self-sustaining small base has been technically possible for a long time. We have known since the landings that the moon is rich in minerals that could be harnessed for energy sources. We know that there is ice in the shadows of the craters of the moon that could be used as a water source.  The technology has been there for decades to create the next step necessary for space exploration.  However, the political will has not and it is unfortunate.

In fact, if we do not get our act together soon, the Chinese and the Russians are going to beat us to the moon and Mars and that is not going to be a positive development for our national pride or national security.