For the first time, a U.S. president has canceled the main future human spaceflight program, leaving NASA without a direction, soon without a vehicle to fly people in space, and with its role as world space leader in doubt.
How did we get into this predicament, and is there a path toward regaining the kind of space eminence Americans have taken for granted?
As an unapologetic space cadet, I'm appalled by Washington's chaotic leadership and judgment over several decades. As a critical historian, I am fascinated by the whole spectacle. We have achieved great things in space over the past half-century, despite our short attention spans. But, as Wernher von Braun, author of the Mars exploration paradigm, said, "We can lick gravity, but sometimes the paperwork is overwhelming."
It remains to be seen whether the public, facing the loss of space eminence and the rising interest of other nations, will rediscover its fickle enthusiasm for human spaceflight.
The shock of the Soviets' first satellite, Sputnik goaded a reluctant President Dwight Eisenhower into establishing a small civilian space program. With the Cold War in full swing, President John F. Kennedy established the moon landing as a way to compete safely with the Soviets and grew the fledgling NASA into a huge and well-funded enterprise.
This rising tide carried a number of other boats with it, and satellites and space probes multiplied and became more sophisticated. However, the human spaceflight program always dominated the NASA budget, itself a tiny percentage of the national budget.
Presidents have tossed out grand visions easily over the years, few seriously, and they have continued those of their predecessors only with solid popular support or compelling policy reasons.
The space shuttle program was built over four presidential administrations on a tight budget and shouldered almost all U.S. space ambitions for 30 years, three times longer than expected. Its final missions over the next year will complete the space station (itself having taken three times as long as expected to build), but it will not service the operational life of the station, as originally planned.
After the Challenger accident in 1986, the shuttle program was devoted almost exclusively to station construction. When the Columbia disaster occurred 17 years later, President George W. Bush announced his "Vision for Space Exploration," a kluge of the old Mars paradigm with what the NASA administrator at that time called "Apollo on steroids."
The space community rallied around the only game in town, but without the promised funding, as current NASA administrator Charles Bolden told a congressional hearing last month, "We were living a hallucination. ... A vision without resources is a hallucination." President Barack Obama, despite canceling the future human spaceflight program, has proposed increasing NASA's budget and has promised (without revealing the details) a new and exciting program.
Presidents have always used space as an instrument for their broader programs and agendas, but usually without much public debate or even notice. This is different. The old, well-worn paradigms and plans are probably off the table, but the new ones are just emerging, in piecemeal fashion.
Whether this is just a "bad rollout" or indicative of deeper indecision, the administration may just have given the space community what it has pined for since the end of Apollo: another Sputnik to once again inject passion and focus into human spaceflight.
Joseph N. Tatarewicz is associate professor of history at University of Maryland, Baltimore County and director of the Human Context of Science & Technology Program. His e-mail is email@example.com.