On October 4, 1957 the world changed. The Soviet Union launched the first artificial Earth satellite, Sputnik, into orbit. It was nothing more than a small metal sphere containing two radio transmitters, but it signaled that the Russians had taken the lead in the space race.
Americans, previously assured of their technological dominance, were stunned.
After Sputnik, the space race took off in earnest. The US Defense Department accelerated missile development. The Congress established the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). The threat of a "missile gap" loomed over the 1960 Presidential elections.
And, then, the news got worse. The Russians scored another triumph. In April 1961, Yuri Gagarin became the first human to fly in Earth orbit.
On May 25, 1961, President John F. Kennedy went before Congress and declared, "Now it is time to take longer strides -- time for a great new American enterprise -- time for this nation to take a clearly leading role in space achievement which, in many ways, may hold the key to our future on Earth." He went on to commit the nation to "the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth."
A little over eight years later, the men of Apollo 11 walked on the moon. By that time, the space race was no longer much of a contest. We had left the Soviets in our dust. Subsequent Apollo missions to the Moon simply added more proof of what was already readily apparent. We were the masters of space.
We continued in that mode for twenty-five years thereafter. We sent robotic probes throughout the Solar System. We built and flew the Space Shuttle. We did the lion's share of the work in creating and supporting the International Space Station. We were the worlds' first truly space-faring nation.
That was then. This is now.
We have retired the Space Shuttles from active service and are busy deciding in what museums we wish to display them. We claim that the future of manned space light in Earth orbit belongs to commercial companies, but none of the leading contenders for that role actually has a spacecraft ready to assume those duties. NASA's Constellation project, which was to return man to the Moon, has been cancelled. There is talk of manned missions to asteroids and Mars but precious little funding.
And, so now, we are reduced to paying the Russians to carry our astronauts into space. Yes. The nation that sent men to the Moon now sends its personnel to Kazakhstan to be lifted into orbit in fifty year-old Soyuz space capsules atop Russian rockets.
The Americans, the kings of space, have become the functional equivalent of interplanetary hobos, hitching a ride on someone else's craft.
We have an existing $1.5 billion contract with the Russians to fly our astronauts into Earth orbit that runs until 2016. NASA officials are already negotiating with the Russian regarding an extension of that contract beyond 2012. We have no choice. NASA no longer operates a single human-rated spacecraft.
Desperate for some sort of solution, NASA has recently indicated interest in the possibility of having Boeing put its new seven-seat crew capsule on an Atlas V rocket in an effort to regain a capability of carrying astronauts into orbit by the end of 2015.
"This is the quickest way to close the gap and get U.S. crews flying again," said John Elbon, a Boeing vice president. "It's an affordable approach that will then leave NASA funding to develop capabilities for exploration beyond low-Earth orbit."
What Elbon neglected to say, and what Boeing apparently hopes no one will notice is that, while the Atlas V launch vehicle comes from the United States, its main engine, the RD-180, is actually made in Russia. Without the Russians, the Atlas V isn't going anywhere. One way or the other, we're still begging for a lift.
Discussing the state of the US space program before Congress recently, Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the moon, had this to say:
"Our choices are to lead, to try to keep up, or to get out of the way. A lead, however earnestly and expensively won, once lost, is nearly impossible to regain'We will have no American access to, and return from, low Earth orbit and the International Space Station for an unpredictable length of time in the future' For a country that has invested so much for so long to achieve a leadership position in space exploration and exploitation, this condition is viewed by many as lamentably embarrassing and unacceptable"
President Obama talks a lot about the future of the American economy and the necessity for us to push aggressively our lead in areas like aerospace. In that context, to allow the United States to go from the world's leader in spaceflight to begging space on someone else's ships is incomprehensible and indefensible. We need a manned spaceflight capability, and we need it now, whether than means accelerating programs in the developmental stage or even bringing back Shuttles from retirement for an interim period. We cannot afford to squander a lead we have paid so much to acquire.
President John F. Kennedy said in September 1962: "No nation which expects to be the leader of other nations can expect to stay behind in this race for space... We mean to be a part of it -- we mean to lead it!" I wonder what Kennedy would think of a nation reduced to thumbing a ride into space from its former adversaries.