Ever since NASA launched its first historic spaceflight on May 5th, 1961, human beings have been fascinated with space travel and the possibility of life on other planets. The 1960s was a tremendous decade for space exploration in general, and NASA in particular. NASA succeeded in circling the Earth in ’62, conducted the first ever space walk in ’65 (is this how Michael Jackson came up with his legendary “moonwalk”?), and in 1969 came Apollo 11. The Apollo program was terminated in 1975.
NASA’s Space Shuttle program was another milestone in human space travel. The first of its kind, a reusable space shuttle, Columbia was launched in April 1981. NASA quickly added the Atlantis, the Discovery, and the Endeavour (built after the Challenger disaster) to its fleet of space shuttles. Sadly, the space shuttle era is coming to an end. By the end of 2010, all shuttle flights will be discontinued, and the shuttle fleet will soon be seen in the Smithsonian Museum.
In 2004, American President G. W. Bush announced the “Vision for Space Exploration” program. It was an extremely ambitious agenda. A component of the Vision, “The Constellation Program”, focused on a human expedition to Mars, starting with placing man back on the moon by the year 2020. As ambitious as the vision was, the mission, like most of the Bush administration’s visions and missions as we came to see, was highly impractical. The sources of funding for the program were never made clear, which prompted President Barrack Obama to say, “Houston, you have a problem”. President Obama was only too keen to give “The Constellation Program” a K.I.T.A (A Kick in The Behind; for lack of a more PG word), ending manned flights, at least, until 2015. From 2010 onwards, American expedition crews are to piggy back on Russian Soyuz rocket to get to the International Space Station.
This decision, of course, caused a huge hue and cry among many, particularly because his decision will cause 21,000 people associated with the space shuttle program to lose their jobs. Obama justifies his decision by saying he is diverting the released funds to the nations education program. Though, noble his intentions, why would he pay the big bucks to the Russians when America has an entire shuttle fleet? It’s like renting a donkey, from your least favorite person on the planet, when you have a perfectly fat and healthy horse!
However, it was only “The Constellation Program” that got the K.I.T.A. The International Space Station (ISS) is still a go, and it’s what’s on NASA’s plate for the present and foreseeable future. But none the less, Obama had to throw his NASA-plan critics a small bone to be content with for the time being, and decided to revive the Constellation’s Orion crew capsule as a lifeboat for the ISS. But, experts say it would take around $8 billion to build Orion into a rescue shuttle; making a piggy back ride with the Russians, by far, the lesser of two evils. So, it’s either a very smart “political” move, or a very “smart” dumb move.
But, we must appreciate the difficult times the Obama administration is facing. It wasn’t his fault that the Great Depression did a cameo, right smack in the middle of his presidency. Although, it’s extremely unfortunate that NASA has taken a back seat in this administration; it’s more important to find a solution to the problems that are plaguing America on Earth; rather than to the anomalies of space. Nevertheless, the current administration has set goals for venturing further than Earth orbit i.e. an asteroid visit by 2025 and then a Mars expedition by mid 2030’s. Although, these goals might seem farfetched and half-hearted now, but you have to give this administration points for keeping NASA on the agenda; even when world economies are tumbling left, right and center.