opinion Today, May 25, marks the 50th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy's famous speech urging Americans to reach for the moon. With the U.S. space program in desperate need of new direction and genuine inspiration after years of neglect from Washington, we could use a 2011 equivalent of that oration.
One of Kennedy's finest speeches--and arguably one of the greatest in presidential history--it called on the U.S. space program to achieve what many thought to be impossible:
"I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth," Kennedy said in addressing a joint session of Congress and a national television audience. "No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind, or more important in the long-range exploration of space; and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish."
Kennedy's call was more than a boastful assignment. It was a daring attempt to inspire national morale in the face of a Soviet Union seemingly winning the Cold War. The Russians had Sputnik--the world's first artificial satellite--in orbit, and the growing fear among many Americans was that superior Soviet space science meant greater military might and more lethal missile technology.
But the speech was also one of history's greatest examples of an American leader trying to inspire and rally citizens toward an incredible achievement. It's a sentiment lost not only on the 21st century space program, but on modern American politics as a whole. No one--from the White House to Capitol Hill to the campaign trail--challenges us to achieve at the very highest levels of scientific and inventive endeavor these days.
NASA currently languishes in general disarray without clear orders from Washington, encumbered by constant funding worries--leaving private enterprise as the driving force of space exploration. No president since Ronald Reagan has placed any real sense of priority or pride on the space program, and some argue that the Reagan administration stressed NASA's space shuttle efforts not out of a sense of aspiration or exploration, but to restore the American psyche after the Challenger disaster.
Though they changed the curtains in the Oval Office, the Clinton, Bush, and Obama administrations shared the same general policy of neglecting and gradually defunding space exploration. In the most recent and creative instance of hobbling NASA, President Obama killed funding for NASA's Constellation moon exploration program, claiming the move would inspire NASA to develop more commercial exploratory programs. It was like encouraging a kid to ride a bike by taking his Schwinn away and handing him a pogo stick.
While constantly on the hunt for appropriations, NASA has marked off some significant achievements over the last decade, including a Mars Rover program (which suggested the presence of water and possibly former life on the Red Planet) and the precision comet strike and analysis mission Deep Impact.
Sadly, announcements of future ambitious projects--like yesterday's word of the new Orion-based deep space ship design--are haunted by the same tired questions: "When will you build it? How will you pay for it?" The wait for answers often stays in place until the program--like Constellation--fades away.
In this era of polarized, political bickering, it's oddly refreshing to find an issue where no party or political philosophy can take the high ground. NASA's slow death over the last 15 years has been a Republican/Democrat tag-team shakedown.
Generally, every decision to deny NASA the funding and resources necessary to maintain a vibrant, frontier-defying exploration program came down to the same shortsighted argument: "There are more pressing needs for the money."
Anytime you hear this excuse bandied about, ask the people who made it if you can remove from their lives everything the space program helped give them--including the computer on which you're reading this diatribe. Better still, encourage them to do a little reading on how many essential life-saving medical inventions emerged directly from NASA research, including the CAT scan machine and ArterioVision.
There's another, more disturbing cause at the root of America's fading space program. National leadership has all but abandoned any calls for aspiration or achievement. The eight years of the Bush administration stressed caution, wariness, and security post-9/11. The resulting aura encouraged an ethos of withdrawal and survival, instead of the desire for adventure and risk taking needed to reach out to the solar system.
Bush hailed plans to return to the moon or to put a human footprint on Mars, but he chose other funding priorities when the bill came.
Meanwhile, though Obama calls for a new "Sputnik moment" for America, he doesn't specifically include human endeavors in space as a top priority. Instead, he positions himself as a savior, protector, and reformer. That may be an effective political strategy, but that message doesn't point national aspirations to the stars. An American culture that could produce a space program capable of venturing to nearby planets wouldn't need a savior or a protector.
Sadly, in an era when a common goal like the moon landing--a scientific feat that brought many Americans together during a turbulent decade--could heal a deep national political divide, NASA operates in the half light. All but forgotten by the media and treated like an inconvenience by Washington, NASA lacks any sense of mission.
Five decades after Kennedy lit the candle that illuminated the way to Apollo 11, its flame is all but snuffed out, and it won't be reignited until we remember why we went to the moon in the first place. It wasn't to make money. It wasn't to win a war. It wasn't to score political points. We landed on the moon to show the universe what amazing feats human beings can achieve when they work together and dream.
We won't accomplish anything that spectacular until the concepts of cooperation and aspiration return to the list of American priorities.