Astronaut Gene Cernan and John Flannery
This week we celebrate our retreat from the exploration of space.
Thirty Thousand onlookers are visiting Washington Dulles International Airport to welcome the arrival of the Space Shuttle Discovery so that it may be powered down and cabined away in retirement at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Virginia.
We should be mourning instead of celebrating because taking this shuttle out of service shows that our nation lacks the resolve that put a man on the moon, a space station in orbit, and an all-seeing eye (the Hubble Telescope) in the sky to show us the way to the stars.
It has been my honor and privilege to know several astronauts who risked their lives and devoted their careers to space exploration.
When I asked Apollo 17 Commander Gene Cernan, the last man to walk on the moon, what he thought about retiring the shuttle, Gene said, “we now have several new space museums.”
Only last September, Gene told Congress that “we had the most capable operationally proven launch vehicle available … giving [the United States] unprecedented personal and payload access to low Earth orbit,” and warned Congress that the retirement of the shuttle fleet would leave us with “zero capability to access” the space station and the idea was “poorly thought out and premature.”
Gene wonders why he spent thirteen years of his life exploring space – if we have decided to squander all that we’ve learned by retiring our shuttle fleet and “disabling our nation’s space program.” The poet Shelley wrote of a king who lamented, “look on my works, ye mighty and despair! Nothing beside remains.” Does this lament describe our space program?
The Discovery Shuttle spent 365 days on 30 missions, three missions working on the Hubble Telescope. It is the fourth shuttle orbiter taken out of service and consigned to a trophy case. The Shuttle Enterprise is moth-balled in New York, the Endeavor in LA, and the Atlantis in Florida. These other shuttles completed an additional 100 missions.
Cernan told Congress last September that our nation is “on a path of decay,” surrendering its lead in space to its former adversary, Russia, and jeopardizing any possible return to the moon or exploration of Mars.
Apollo 13 Commander Jim Lovell told me, “It is a shame that we are putting these good Orbiters out to pasture when they could still be supporting the International Space Station (ISS).” Lovell said, “The money saved in [the Shuttles’] demise is being wasted in a confused budget supporting a ‘mission to nowhere’ space program.”
The world renowned Cambridge Physicist Stephen Hawking, in his book, “The Universe in a Nutshell,” said that “by 2600 the world’s population will be standing shoulder to shoulder, and electricity use will make the Earth glow red-hot.”
Hawking said there is a “sick joke” that “the reason we have not been contacted by extraterrestrials is that when a civilization reaches our stage of development, it becomes unstable and destroys itself.”
Hawking doesn’t, however, “believe the human race has come so far just to snuff itself out when things are getting interesting.” He is concerned, however, that “we shall have to explore the galaxy in a slow and tedious manner,” absent some variant of warp drive.
“We must continue explorations in space,” Apollo 14 lunar pilot Edgar Mitchell told me, “as that is our destiny.”
The Director of the Hayden Planetarium, Neil deGrasse Tyson, an astrophysicist, in his popular book, “Space Chronicles,” says, “we know in our minds, but especially in our hearts, the value to our culture of new voyages and the new vistas they provide.”
Tyson says we have to return to the moon again because we “haven’t been out of low Earth orbit for 40 years,” and must “remind ourselves how to do that,” and “figure out how to set up a base camp and sustain life in a place other than Earth;” also we know that any trip to Mars “takes about nine months” whereas the Moon is “three days away.”
Tyson explains that the $100 billion dollar cost spread over the several years still amounts to less than one-half of one percent of our tax budget.
Another cost of shutting down manned space flight is the many young men and women who might devote their studies, their lives and genius to space if, as Gene puts it, our nation had not made “a pledge to mediocrity.”
President John Kennedy told the students at Rice University on September 12, 1962, that there are those who “would have us stay where we are …” These stand-patting mediocrities abound to this day. Kennedy challenged students and the nation at large to embark on “the great adventure of all time.” We must renew those challenges to persist in this adventure, and for the very same reasons Kennedy said, “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 …”
Jim Lovell once famously said, “Houston we have a problem.” We sure do again, and we’d better fix it. We must start by listening to the astronauts who traveled in space -- instead of the small thinking bureaucrats who just take up space.