The final voyage of NASA’s space shuttle program represents the biggest collapse of a national exploration program since China turned inward after the remarkable 15th century voyages of Chinese Admiral Zheng He.
The space shuttle, known formally as the “Space Transportation System” (STS), descended from the original Kennedy-era response to the Soviet investment in technology development. Unfortunately, the program’s last gasp will come with this year’s launch of the Mars Science Laboratory. With a budget topping US$2.5 billion as of June 2011, the mission represents the last of the large flagship missions of the past 30 years.
The U.S. is ending 50 years of youthful, exuberant ambition for the reduced goals of middle age. (Disclaimer: I have served NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory for many years as a consultant on planning activities.)
Science Students at Sea
While the U.S. has forfeited its commanding lead, other countries are picking up speed, with Japan, India, Israel, China, and the European Union now managing active space exploration programs. And Russia has begun to dominate the space marketplace: The end of the space shuttle program means that the price of a seat on the Russian Soyuz spacecraft will increase from $25 million to $60 million between now and 2016. How ironic that the descendant of the Soviet Union would win the Space Race in the space market.
The decline of the space program marks a loss in many related fields, as research and development funding associated with the Space Race led to many stunning technology successes in the United States, including digital image processing used in MRIs, miniature electronics for pacemakers, memory foam mattresses, air bags for cars, and hundreds of other applications. The original Internet was born from defense funding. There is no question that spinoffs from the aerospace industry have transformed society.
In addition, the Space Race inspired the funding of education at all levels to staff the aerospace industry with the landmark National Defense Education Act of 1958.
Unfortunately, the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War resulted in abandonment of the effort to maintain a competitive educational system. Thus the long death spiral of American education began.
Earlier this year, the National Assessment of Educational Progress test determined that only 60 percent of high-school seniors understood basic science such as explaining the relationship of the calendar to the amount of daylight. How can you explore the universe when you don’t understand how daylight and the calendar are related?
Lost in the Shuffle
So, the U.S. has chosen to relegate itself to the mass of competitors following Russia’s lead — like Lance Armstrong voluntarily surrendering his lead to the peloton.
Meanwhile, America’s rapid engineering advances will also likely slow down as the government stops sustaining the pool of technology research and technology funding.
Finally, the U.S. is starving itself of the lifeblood of new engineers prepared to take on the challenges of advancing exploration.
Zheng made seven voyages around the Indian Ocean, taking previously traveled sea routes to expand China’s presence throughout Asia, advancing shipbuilding, navigation, and a number of technologies. A debate still exists regarding the possibility that he reached the New World.
Unfortunately, the shortsighted regime that followed his death “lost” his records and turned inward. Another 400 years passed before China rebuilt its military might and began its current wave of expansion. Hopefully, the U.S. will not need four centuries to regroup.