Last week, President Obama announced a decision to put NASA manned space flights on hiatus. Yesterday, Neil Armstrong, the first man to land on the moon, along with fellow astronauts James Lovell and Eugene Cernan wrote an open letter criticizing this decision as it ‘destines our nation to become one of second or even third rate stature.’ A concern that Armstrong and his compatriots have is that we have already invested over $10 billion in developing future manned space implements, and this money will have been wasted if the national government does not continue further exploration.
Armstrong typically shuns the spotlight and has been harbored in academia in recent years. But when he made his historic journey in 1969, it was a landmark event in American and world history. The success at the time solidified America’s position as the world’s technological leader, able to do anything the nation set its mind to. For a number of years, NASA captured the public’s imagination, with every trip headlined by the media and watched by hundreds of millions on television. Recently, though, each succeeding NASA manned flight receives less and less publicity, unless something untoward occurs.
For a number of years, NASA was a sacred cow in federal funding decisions. The policy problem is that, because of safety concerns, the cost of manned missions is obviously much higher than similar unmanned flights would be, with advantages that are less quantifiable than symbolic. As fiscal concerns became paramount, and as people became less invested in the future of the space program, the administration saw the opportunity to reduce its budget.
Another problem NASA faces is that both foreign governments and private enterprise have chosen to enter space in recent years. Thus, NASA primarily has been relegated to the position of an adjunct to the Defense Department and the NSA. This pretty much follows established practice, where the government funds something while it is experimental; then, as it becomes more common, and the risks are less punitive, private industry takes over.