When President Obama permanently grounded America’s space shuttles a couple of years ago, he made a huge mistake. He gave Russia carte blanche over the International Space Station and we now pay $70 million each for our astronauts to hitch a ride.
With Vladimir Putin flexing his muscles in the Ukraine and thumbing his nose at the United States and rest of the world, what happens if he gives our astronauts the boot? We’d be up the creek without a paddle. Our shuttles were hauled off to museums.
Not only did Obama tube the shuttles, he canceled the Constellation program, the successor to America’s historic space shuttle program. Although the complex program was plagued by delays and cost overruns, taxpayers lost the $11 billion they’d invested when the president shut it down. Obama says he also opposes returning to the moon—another huge blunder. Instead, he plans to send astronauts to asteroids and, eventually, to Mars.
To reach Mars from Earth, Obama’s budget funds the design and production of massive new heavy lift rockets. But because gravity on the moon is one-sixth that of the Earth, it would be far easier to launch Mars missions from the moon. China thinks so, as well.
In abandoning the lunar program, the president missed the point. It is not about “been there, done that,” it is about having a place from which to launch deep space missions — like his mission to Mars — test new technologies and develop limitless supplies of clean energy.
Space physicist David Criswell believes the moon could supply clean renewable energy for our entire planet. He and others envision a series of lunar power facilities to capture massive amounts of solar energy and beam it back to Earth. The moon receives more than 13,000 terawatts of energy and harnessing one percent of that energy could satisfy our planetary needs.
Apollo 17 astronaut Dr. Harrison “Jack” Schmitt, a geologist and one of the last two people to walk on the moon, believes Helium 3 found on the moon is the key to the second generation of fusion reactors. A light non-radioactive isotope, Helium 3 is rare on Earth, but plentiful on the moon and scientists believe it could produce vast amounts of electricity.
Potential lunar colonization got a healthy boost a year ago when ice was discovered by NASA scientists at its south pole. That means there could be drinking water, oxygen for breathing and hydrogen for rocket fuel on the moon itself.
China sees the strategic advantage of establishing bases on the moon and plans to start within 10 years.
While some in the scientific community support Obama’s plan, many high-profile astronauts oppose it. The first and last men on the moon, the late Neil Armstrong and Eugene Cernan, said Obama's proposal "destines our nation to become one of second- or even third-rate stature." Former astronaut Winston Scott, dean of the college of aeronautics at the Florida Institute of Technology, said, "You can't call yourself a leader if you have to hitch a ride with someone else."
Encouraging the private sector to provide shuttle transport in the future is a good idea. But that could be a long time coming. American space hero John Glenn proposed that our existing space shuttles keep flying until the private sector has a proven alternative.
Through decades of risk, sacrifice, heroism and hard work, America has led the world in space exploration. Now, we are reduced to cosmic hitchhikers with our thumbs out begging a ride as Russia’s Soyuz and China’s Shenzhou spacecraft pass us by.
Don C. Brunell is a business analyst, writer and columnist. He recently retired as president of the Association of Washington Business, the state’s oldest and largest business organization, and now lives in Vancouver. He can be contacted at theBrunells@msn.com.