A few hours after watching the final launch of the space shuttle on TV along with a crowd estimated to be as large as 1 million who traveled to the Kennedy Space Center for what may turn out to be the end of the great American space age were asking if this launch signifies the beginning of the end of U.S. leadership in space and technology.
The White House continues to offer little more than glowing words about how wonderful America's space program can be if spaceflight is cheaper. NASA is being jerked around in a partisan game of political football. NASA, like any organization that strives for great accomplishments, needs a challenging goal and a hard deadline to achieve that goal. President Obama does not seem to understand that particular precondition for progress.
The goal of returning American astronauts to the moon and then traveling to Mars was canceled by the president. As a result, NASA is now like one of the crabs that scurry across the Space Coast beach; the agency is able to move sideways at best, but not forward. NASA might as well be the National Science Foundation if it is prohibited from executing a human space exploration effort. The president speaks grandly about exploration, but only of past accomplishments and planning for some indeterminate future venture.
NASA has been told to pursue campus scientific research goals as the exploration goals have been ripped away. It is not so much a matter of making spaceflight cheaper so we can afford to do more in the future as it is a matter of allowing America's robust space-technology muscles to waste while NASA is chained to the ground by a president who lacks vision.
Some say the space shuttle's return to earth for the final time marks the end of an era, but also opens an unprecedented age of private and commercial spaceflight. This new era will require international collaboration to keep watch over the practice, a University of Nebraska-Lincoln professor and internationally renowned space law expert said that this will prompt private entrepreneurs to invest in commercial spaceflight. Some companies -- like SpaceX of Hawthorne, Calif., an American space transport company founded by PayPal co-founder Elon Musk -- are close to launching their first flights. SpaceX, like other companies including Virgin Galactic, has critical U.S. involvement.
The legal implications for this new wave of commercial spaceflight are already becoming visible, The United States is leading the way in carefully developing a balanced regulatory regime for private commercial spaceflight on a national level, and also with considerable consultation with Europe. Soon, such questions will have to be addressed at a truly international level, where the same balanced approach between the interests of the operators in this infant industry to make things happen and the interests of the public at large regarding safety and security should somehow determine the details of such systems as well.
Another international legal ramification involves security -- specifically, laws concerning export controls on "dual-use technologies," which can be used for both civil and military purposes, von der Dunk said. A sensible approach to current U.S. policies on ITARs, or International Traffic in Arms Regulations, will be important in that realm.
ITARs, which are interpreted and enforced by the U.S. Department of State, safeguard national security and further foreign policy objectives through the control the export of defense-related articles and technologies.
The gradual progress in making the current U.S. regime on ITARs increasingly more sensible, efficient and effective is a very important step both for allowing relevant U.S. technology to serve those developments -- and therefore the U.S. industry -- and for allowing a more globally coherent approach to the security issues involved.
It’s important to recognize, though, that the decision in question belongs to all of us, and not just Obama. The administration wouldn’t be cutting the manned spaceflight program if Americans were still enthusiastic about going to the stars — if space exploration still occupied a privileged place in our imagination, if our jocks still wanted to be astronauts and our nerds still wanted to build rockets. Obama is simply bowing to our culture’s priorities: Our geeks want to build a better XBox, and our jocks want to buy it to play Call of Duty: Modern Warfare. Our technological energy is still immense, but it’s increasingly turned inward — toward communication, life-extension, and computer-generated adventure — rather than outward toward the stars.
In this sense, James Cameron really is an appropriate choice to opine about the space program. “Avatar,” not NASA, probably represents the future of the American relationship to distant planets. In the real world, we’ll be permanently earthbound — but inside the space of virtual reality we’ll be kings of infinite space.
So, America have we lost the desire to reach the stars. The oldest of us remember laying in the yard watching the stars and wondering if we would ever reach them. Have our children forgotten to how to dream of the universe and what lies beyond?