U.S. Space Program Stained by Red Ink

U.S. Space Program Stained by Red Ink

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The final launch of the space shuttle Endeavor, which is slated to occur in the coming days, raises an unsettling question that’s rooted in our fiscal problems: will we ever dream again?

Nearly a half-century ago, President John F. Kennedy spoke these words at Rice University:

“[W]hy, some say, the moon? Why choose this as our goal? And they may well ask why climb the highest mountain? Why, 35 years ago, fly the Atlantic? Why does Rice play Texas?  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, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.”

Now, we’re about to witness Endeavor’s last mission, and that of Atlantis in June, ending the 30-year-old shuttle program – and, more dishearteningly, that of a U.S. manned space program for at least years to come.

President Obama’s vision for space calls for scrapping plans for a U.S. return to the moon in favor of reaching an asteroid after 2025 and Mars by the mid-2030s, shifting development of new space hardware to private companies, and using Russian aircraft to reach the international space station at least until U.S. companies can create rockets to do so.

Kennedy issued a national call to arms with a clear deadline, one enough important enough for government to lead; Obama offers a vaguer vision, with mushy time frames, on which the private sector would lead.

Thus, the country that won the “race to the moon” has abandoned plans to return. The country that has dominated space for a half-century will cede it for years to come to Russia, China, and other aspirants.

Obama did not tie his vision to budget constraints, but it’s nevertheless a sign of the fiscal times. Big deficits leave the impression to policymakers and the public alike that we are a nation bereft of resources, one that can’t afford to do big things.

The truth is that as our economy grows, the nation grows richer with it. The United States is far richer today than when Kennedy issued his call to arms. The issue is not resources. It’s how we allocate them.

Do you remember where you were on June 20, 1969 when Apollo 11 touched down on the moon, when its astronauts planted an American flag on the lunar surface? Do you remember how you felt?

America is the land of dreams. When will we dream again?

Lawrence J. Haas is former Communications Director to Vice President Gore and, before that, to the White House Office of Management and Budget. He's now a public affairs consultant who writes widely about foreign and domestic affairs, including fiscal policy.

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Lawrence Haas
is former senior White House official and award-winning journalist, writes widely on foreign and domestic affairs. His articles have appeared in The New York Times, USA Today, Los Angeles Times, Baltimore Sun, Miami Herald, San Diego Union-Tribune