Wed, June 26

Commentary: No one remembers who finished second

Jim Barber

Jim Barber

What changed?

By the end of World War II, Americans felt like there were no boundaries to what our nation could accomplish if we set our minds to it.

We were ambitious, entrepreneurial, and searching for the next challenge. Prodded - challenged - by the USSR, our president told us we would put a man on the moon by the end of the 1960s even before we had put the first American into space.

Though he didn't live to see it, on July 20, 1969, just eight years after the start of the Apollo Space Program and with only three casualties (a launch pad accident), that promise was fulfilled. Forty-five years later, no other country has yet accomplished that feat.

President Reagan then challenged NASA to build a space station that would orbit the Earth. We could have, and would have, built it ourselves. Instead, as a gesture of good faith that the station would not be used for military purposes, we agreed to allow 15 other nations to share joint ownership, knowing that the greater weight of the financial and technical burden was ours.

On November 20, 1998 Russia put the original segment of ISS in orbit. Two weeks later, the U.S. launched the first component and began assembly of the station. Less than two years later, the first crew began living in the station, which has been constantly occupied ever since.

This was only achievable with the development by the U.S. of the first re-usable spacecraft, the American shuttles.

America seemed to be reaching for the stars. According to the Wall Street Journal, American astronauts alone "have performed roughly 7,800 hours of research" on the space platform, a large percentage focused on the long-term effects of spaceflight on the human body.

What will we do with that knowledge?

Back on terra firma, there are those grousing that money spent on a space program is an expensive lark, that the money could be better spent helping the less fortunate in our society. They willfully ignore the bounty - medical and technological - that has contributed to not just our physical welfare but economic as well - the hundreds of thousands of jobs created by the knowledge gained. That knowledge could even save mankind some day from the catastrophic impact of a meteor or asteroid.

But now we rest on our laurels. Fourteen years after first occupying ISS, we have decommissioned our shuttles and turned NASA into a research tool for archaeology, for testing new material for commercial aircraft and to track climate. We basically pay rent ($74 billion since 1994, another $21 billion by 2020 to operate ISS) and shell out $70 million a pop to Vladimir Putin for our scientists to hitch a ride to the station.

Meanwhile, China is working to get men on the moon in the next decade and other nations are diligently working on their own space programs. Unless we act, we will be left in their technological dust - and they will use that knowledge for military purposes.

NASA must be re-dedicated to explore beyond our own planet. The private sector can handle archaeology and climate studies. It is the duty of our government to make sure that our technology is cutting edge, second to none in this dangerous world.

The good news is that the pursuit of that knowledge, as in the past, has a dividend of prosperity and health for all mankind. It is the nature of man to seek the unknown. America, once committed, has no equal in that pursuit.

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