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The Return of Atlantis Prompted a Look at America's Future ... and I'm Very Troubled

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A little over a week ago I watched space shuttle Atlantis land at Kennedy. I had lots and lots of mixed emotions. The shuttle is just a remarkable technological achievement, and watching it land can be a pretty emotional experience.

But the space shuttle was never supposed to be more than a space truck to low Earth orbit. I was left reflecting on my childhood when I watched Apollo astronauts walking on the Moon, and dreamed of what awaited us in the 21st Century in terms of human spaceflight. It has definitely not come to pass. In fact, approaching 2010 we are now at a crossroads. The shuttle has just five more flights, and then the U.S. will need to rely on the Russians for years just to have astronaut access to the International Space Station. And that's just keeping the status quo with humans continuing to travel no farther from the surface of Earth than a couple hundred miles. I drive farther than that visiting my mom just north of New York City from my home near Washington, DC. It's called low Earth orbit, and we've been stuck here now for 37 years. Is this the grand vision for human spaceflight we embraced 40 years ago when we saw Armstrong and Aldrin walking on the Moon?

So what exactly are we doing as a nation in terms of leadership in human spaceflight? Are we embracing a strategic long-term plan or an administration flavor of the month? Should human spaceflight be a high technology priority for America? Should we allow this leadership to pass to other nations? Won't such action surely help erode our larger 'brand' as a leader and innovator in science and technology? Is the future of U.S. human spaceflight really about the NASA budget shortfall recently identified by the White House-appointed Committee headed by Norman Augustine, or is it something far more substantial, reflecting a nation trying to redefine itself -- no, make that a superpower unsure of how to chart its course in the 21st Century after the rules of the road seem to have dramatically changed? Is it the inability to muster a national will on virtually anything in light of a seemingly perfect storm of crises here at home, and globally?

My sadness over an unrealized vision for human spaceflight only leads me to a more general realization. And it's this realization that is very troubling to me, even ominous. Will America be able to compete in the global high technology marketplace of the 21st century? Are we taking science and technology education seriously? Are parents taking science and technology education seriously? Do Americans know that our national prowess in science and technology is about the future of our children, our standard of living, and the American dream? Do Americans truly know this is of national strategic importance? We are living through changes forced by globalization and a new marketplace. Are jobs lost ever coming back? More importantly -- are we training Americans -- all Americans -- in our grade K-12 system and in our colleges and universities, in skills required by 21st Century jobs? This is far bigger than leadership in spaceflight. It's about the science and technology required to address global problems from energy, to climate change, to managing limited resources in the midst of growing populations. Will America be capable of stepping to the plate in the face of these challenges -- in the face of these remarkable opportunities?

We landed humans on the moon. It is still hard to fathom. It was the most remarkable journey the human race has ever undertaken (my view). It was raw inspiration that propelled generations of young Americans to the frontiers of science and technology. Yet it seems to me that a vibrant, healthy nation, is only as good as its next success. The question before us -- are we now destined in the words of Dylan Thomas to "just go gentle into that good night?" I firmly believe it is up to us.

I had written in an earlier post my view on the needed driver for the future of U.S. human spaceflight.

Here is what it was like for me living through Apollo, and a later chance encounter with Buzz Aldrin. It will give you a sense of where I'm coming from, and might reconnect you with a vision for the future from a time long ago.

Photocredit: NASA

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