The Right Stuff, Again

Out of the shuttle rut.
John C. Wohlstetter
National Review Online
January 19, 2004
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The president's new space program represents the first major commitment to space flight since the last moon landing in 1972. Unfortunately, any progress on this ambitious goal will be hindered through 2010, thanks to existing commitments to the international space station — perhaps the all-time champion of dollar-guzzling boondoggles. Yet thankfully, because the lion's share of the NASA budget now gobbled up by the space shuttle will finance the president's program, the plan at least should prove eminently affordable. Finally an administration grasps the inadequacy of the shuttle, which upon final phase-out (also in 2010) will have been the centerpiece of NASA's efforts for four decades, having never achieved its original goal of making space transport economical and routine.

By contrast, the Bush space initiative incorporates four cardinal virtues of a successful program:

Boldness: Space is a frontier to explore, not merely a hostile environment;

Creativity: New space missions require much better technology, and thus inspire innovation;

Balance: Manned missions will be guided by safety, not showboating;

Oversight: An outside panel will monitor and guide NASA managers.

To a baby boomer who was a lad of ten when Sputnik sent shockwaves through America's policy and science establishments, and a freshly minted college graduate when Apollo 11 landed, the Bush vision is a tonic. It is impossible for anyone under 40 to fully appreciate how unimaginable it was in 1972 that we would retreat from the "high frontier," not to return for nearly half a century, when the college grads of America's lunar heyday would be in their golden years. A Mars landing by 2000 seemed, at least back then, a sure bet. Even now, President Bush has set a modest timetable of 11 to 16 years to return to the moon, the latter figure being twice the time it took NASA to meet JFK's original lunar challenge, issued in 1961.

History teaches that great civilizations must look outward and embrace grand — though achievable — visions to remain ascendant. When they turn inward — at least, for periods longer than needed to consolidate after expansion — decline sets in. Such a turn can take the form of fratricidal, internecine warfare (classical Greece), exhaustion at the empire's frontier (Rome after the death of Marcus Aurelius), or an end to the spirit of exploration (Ming China).

The 1972 end to the moon missions coincided with the inward focus of an America disheartened by failure in Vietnam (its first major martial defeat since the War of 1812), an economy heading into prolonged stagflation, and domestic unrest at home in the form of war protests, race riots, and skyrocketing crime. President Bush begins his new quest in the midst of a worldwide war on terror, in which America faces the specter of mega attacks by fanatics who make the barbarians Rome faced seem positively genteel by comparison.

Undaunted by worldwide conflict, and confident that a great civilization can and will prevail, President Bush has made a courageous choice — one that exemplifies America's famed optimism and "can-do" spirit at its best.

John C. Wohlstetter is a senior fellow at the Seattle-based Discovery Institute.