Madhurita Sengupta, MPA
In January 2004, President Bush announced his Vision for Space Exploration, setting forth executive policy that would send us back to the moon and onto Mars. Though it meant that the end of the Shuttle Program – created in 1981 – was imminent, this promise ignited hope and inspiration in those of us who spent their youths dreaming of “slipping the surly bonds of Earth” (to quote Magee by way of Reagan) and setting foot on extraterrestrial soil, while honoring the legacy of those who’ve made space exploration possible.
And yet, on February 1, 2010, the fabric of our nation’s space program was effectively rewoven, as President Obama announced a new plan for the future of NASA. Constellation, the program that would take us to the moon and onto Mars, was abruptly cancelled. In its place, a crop of commercial efforts would soon be undertaken to ferry US crew and cargo to the International Space Station, effectively freeing resources for NASA to concentrate on developing the next generation of launch and crew vehicles and advanced technologies for future missions. In the meantime, as predicted, the shuttle program officially ended in August of this year, one month after the final flight of the space shuttle Atlantis. (Currently, without a shuttle program, the Russian Soyuz vehicle is our sole mode of transportation to the Space Station, for which the US pays on the order of $60M per seat.)
Many protested Obama’s radically different plan and today, a year and a half after that announcement, NASA sits at a pivotal juncture – one that will determine the future of our nation’s human spaceflight program. The recently passed FY12 budget promised the agency $17B for the fiscal year (which equates to roughly $0.005 per taxpayer), but NASA remains at an impasse. In this budget, Congress has not only cut funding to the commercial efforts, but also attached conditions to this funding contingent on progress made in the development of the next generation launch/crew vehicle, effectively forcing NASA to extend the schedules of both programs, or prematurely choose one commercial provider over another.
Regardless of funding allocations, we, as a nation, now have the opportunity to set the course for the future of human space exploration. Never before has NASA been faced with such apathy and lack of support and funding; and yet, it presents the agency and the nation with a challenge to overcome. How can NASA prove to the administration, Congress, the American public, our international partners, and the rest of the world that it is truly capable of pioneering the future of human spaceflight? Moreover, how can NASA demonstrate that investments in science and technology today are apt to yield dividends of various magnitudes for years to come?
Since the inception of the US human spaceflight program, countless individuals have devoted their livelihoods to further the cause of exploration, to test the limits of mankind’s knowledge and experience, and to expand the boundaries of our terrestrial existence. NASA has been, is, and forever will remain an agency of people who believe in space exploration. It is a collective group of passionate, dedicated workers who are inspired by the contributions of spaceflight to humanity. It is men and women who were awed by Sputnik, by Neil Armstrong’s first steps, by the first joint Russian-American venture in space, by the space shuttle’s maiden voyage, by the building of the International Space Station, piece by piece, before our eyes and who are still inspired on a daily basis by the feats that they themselves help accomplish. They are motivated by man’s innate desire to achieve the impossible, to paraphrase Kennedy, not because it is easy, but because it is hard.
Our nation now has the opportunity to draw on all of our many impressive years of experience and inspire others to not only marvel at our ingenuity and initiative, but to contribute and invest in it. With the end of the shuttle program, we now stand at a crossroads, at which we are fortunate to have the opportunity to honor those who have given their lives to help mankind escape the gravitational bonds that have tethered us to this lustrous planet for centuries, and explore the recesses of the unknown, bit by bit, in order to understand, appreciate, and provide for our species. No matter what path we ultimately take, let us not forget that we are all passionate about many common things; let us not ignore our inner child, who declared his/her desire to become an astronaut at age eight; and all the while, let us honor the legacies of the past, by embracing the possibilities and potential of the future. We owe those who have sacrificed their lives for the advancement of mankind, who accomplished seemingly impossible tasks, at the very least, that much.