What could NASA do with a penny?
So this week we’re celebrating the 45th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing, easily the most significant achievement of the 20th century. But while we look back on that marvelous triumph of American ingenuity, there are some hard truths we mustn’t forget. And there are challenges we face that will define us for generations.
While everyone knows America succeeded in John F. Kennedy’s pledge to put a man on the moon and return him safely to earth before the end of the ’60s, up to that point, America was losing the space race badly. It wasn’t even close.
Here is a list of Russian space “firsts.”
- The Russians beat us into space by launching a satellite, Sputnik, into orbit in 1957.
- First animals in space. The Soviets launched a dog, Laika, into space that, unfortunately, didn’t survive reentry. After other failures they launched two dogs into orbit that survived.
- In April 1961, the Russians were first to send a man into orbit when Yuri Gagarin safely parachuted down after orbiting the earth.
- In 1963, Russian cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova became the first woman in space.
- In 1965, Russian cosmonaut Alexei Leonov became the first man to spacewalk.
- The Russians were first to send a probe on a flyby of the moon.
- The Russians were first to crash land a probe into the moon.
- The Russians were first to photograph the dark side of the moon.
- And in 1966 Luna 9 became the first spacecraft to land on the moon.
- In 1970, Russia landed a robotic rover on moon, the first country to do so.
- The Soviet Union’s Venera probes became the first spacecraft to land on Venus.
- When Russia launched Cuba’s Arnaldo Tamayo Mendez into orbit in 1980, he became the first Latino in space, as well as the first black man (or person of African ancestry) in space. America’s Guion “Guy” Bluford became the first African-American in space when he rode the Space Shuttle Challenger into orbit in 1983.
I point this out to temper the celebration a bit by saying that we need to recommit ourselves to space exploration. Other countries are ramping up their space programs. Now that the space shuttle has been retired the only way American astronauts can fly to the International Space Station is aboard Russian Soyuz rockets. We pay them $70 million per flight. After America imposed sanctions against Russia for its Ukraine incursion, the Russians announced that in 2020 Russia would no longer allow Americans to fly on Russian rockets.
Our Atlas V rockets which we used to launch satellites and military related projects into orbit are powered by Russian made engines, And… you guessed it… Russia is halting sales of the engines. We use them because they’re better and cheaper than American alternatives. It’s a shame that Putin is playing politics with space because space has been the one area where we’ve seen so much international cooperation.
Our space program has shifted heavily to private companies in partnership with NASA. America’s newest manned spacecraft, the Orion, is set for its first launch in December of this year. The spacecraft will be the first since Apollo to be designed for beyond earth orbit space travel.
But meanwhile, China is building up its own space program with plans for a manned mission to the moon, a permanent lunar base and voyage to Mars.
What are we doing? Why aren’t we investing more in space exploration? There are those who say we can’t afford it. They say why spend money on space when there are so many needs here at home. But that’s defeatist, short-sighted thinking. That’s not the thinking that propelled the United States past the dominating Soviet Union in the ’60s.
Space can provide a host of boosts for our country’s prestige and prosperity. Spin-off technologies from the space program has greatly improved Americans’ lives. Memory foam, Dustbusters, freeze dried food, artificial limbs, cochlear implants, scratch-resistant lenses, solar power technologies, firefighter breathing equipment, winglets on planes to provide more forward thrust, medical life support systems, CAT scans, water filtration technology and more were offshoots from the space program. Solving complex problems related to space travel and exploration always leads to technologies that boost our economy and improve our lives here on earth.
Plus, NASA helps answer questions about who we are and our place in the cosmos. Think of the spectacular photos the Hubble Space Telescope has given us for the past near quarter century. And in 2018, we’ll launch the successor to Hubble, the James Webb Space Telescope, a joint venture by NASA, the European Space Agency and the Canadian Space Agency, that will peer further back in time than we’ve ever seen.
Beyond that, astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson points out the greatest impact of space exploration is how it compels people to dream. It inspires entrepreneurs. It motivates. It educates. The investment in space exploration provides a tremendous bang for our buck.
How much is NASA costing us? Half a penny of every dollar. I wish it were one cent.
So Neil Armstrong’s, Buzz Aldrin’s and Michael Collins’ achievement back when I was a toddler was a shining moment in human history and American history. But I’m tired of looking back in order to see our greatness. Let’s look forward. Let’s not become bystanders.
In the future we could find ourselves a superpower drowning in expensive, useless military hardware, with no new spin-off technologies to boost our economy while we watch China plant their flag on Mars.