NASA Reaching for New Heights

In his gloomy Washington Post commentary today on yesterday’s ceremony transferring ownership of the Space Shuttle Discovery from NASA to the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum, Charles Krauthammer urged readers to think of that transfer as the funeral for U.S. leadership in space.  Nothing could be further from the truth. The United States remains far and away the world leader in space technology and exploration. As long as appropriate support continues to be forthcoming from Congress, this will remain the case indefinitely. 

Krauthammer suggests that if China succeeds in putting astronauts on the Moon by 2025, as that country plans, they will have “overtaken” the United States. How absurd! Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the Moon in 1969. How does China managing this feat fifty-six years later, if this happens, amount to “overtaking” us? Obviously, the United States could repeat its lunar feats of the 1960s and 1970s if that were the next most important thing to do in space exploration for the money. But it isn’t! We may well return to the lunar surface again as one of many destinations in the future, but for now, our immediate, more scientifically rewarding goals include sending astronauts to an asteroid in the 2020s, and Mars in the mid-2030s. They bring scientific and technological challenges worthy of a great nation and a true world leader.

Krauthammer doesn’t even mention the International Space Station. The United States led the planning, design, and construction of this $53 billion marvel – an orbiting science and technology-development laboratory that has been continuously manned since 2000. Under the previous administration’s plan, it was underfunded after 2016, implying intent to abandon it long before its scientific and engineering potential had been realized. Under the new bipartisan space-exploration plans worked out between the Obama Administration and the Congress, we will continue to operate the Space Station until at least 2020 and perhaps beyond.

In robotic space exploration, too, nobody else comes close. At this very moment, a stream of data is flowing to us from missions orbiting the Sun, Mercury, the Moon, the asteroid Vesta, Mars, and Saturn. We now have missions on the way to Jupiter, Pluto and Mars. The Hubble, Spitzer, Chandra, and Fermi space telescopes continue to make groundbreaking discoveries on an almost daily basis. We’re on track in the construction of the James Webb Space Telescope, the most sophisticated science telescope ever constructed to help us reveal the mysteries of the cosmos in ways never before possible.  Last year, the MESSENGER spacecraft became the first-ever to enter orbit around Mercury. And shortly thereafter, the Ebb and Flow satellites began orbiting and mapping the gravity field of the Moon. 

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