The end of manned U.S. space flight

April 15, 2010

Fifty years ago this past Monday, man took his first steps into space. The long sought after dream of becoming a space faring people was coming true. That first person was a Russian.

Like the jolt the United States received when the Soviets first launched Sputnik four years earlier, this sent shockwaves through our technical and political circles. We were committed to regain our technical, and thereby political, leadership. The whole nation was involved, devoting our treasure, time, expertise and, in some cases, even lives to regain that leadership by "landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth." The Apollo program fulfilled President Kennedy's and the nation's vision and desire to be the world's leader into this New Frontier.

Once our leadership was regained, our nation was not about to rest on its laurels. We designed and still fly the Space Shuttle with capabilities that are unmatched by any space vehicle in service today. Again, the price to develop and retain these capabilities was paid in money and lives.

The board that investigated the Columbia tragedy in 2003 stated that space flight was inherently risky, and to justify that risk we needed a vision worthy of that risk. To that end NASA developed the Vision for Space Exploration. This vision called for a return to the moon, not just for footprints and photographs like before, but for in-depth science and exploration. We would than use the knowledge that we gained to continue our exploration of the solar system, first to Mars then to further destinations like the asteroid belt, the moons of Jupiter and Saturn, and other destinations that would expand our knowledge and benefit our existence here on earth. To make this happen it was decided to end shuttle flights this year and use the money saved to start this new program.

The program to start this journey was called Constellation, but like any high tech endeavor, it was soon behind schedule and over budget. So the present administration commissioned a blue ribbon committee to come up with options for U.S. manned space flight. One of the options that the committee proposed was to abandon NASA's long and distinguished history of human space flight and to procure crew launch services to the International Space Station from commercial companies and study the possibility of traveling beyond Earth orbit. This is the course the president has decided to take. No matter that there are no commercial vehicles to take astronauts to the station, we'll just depend on the Russians for the 5 years, or most likely longer, that it will take to develop these vehicles, to get our astronauts to the space station at over $50 million per seat. No matter that trips beyond Earth orbit have been studied for decades and were once done on a quite routine basis 40 years ago. The end of the shuttle would truly be the end of the United States human space flight program.

This strategy has been panned by many, many distinguished scientists, former astronauts, NASA administrators and just regular people who don't want to see the U.S. become second rate in space technology. Neil Armstrong, the first man on the moon, Gene Cernan, the last man on the moon and Jim Lovell, commander or Apollo 13, all called the president's plan "devastating." Neil deGrasse Tyson, renowned astrophysicist and director of the Hayden Planetarium gave an impassioned speech on the benefits NASA's human space program provides and the importance of keeping it. Video of that speech can be found on YouTube, and I would encourage everyone to watch it.

We must let the president know that NASA human space flight is an important asset to this nation and should not cast aside and abandoned as he is doing with this new direction.

Earl Blake, Baltimore

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