07/17/2011 08:16 pm ET | Updated Sep 16, 2011

The End of the Shuttle: The Real Reason We Send People Into Space

This week, the shuttle program ends and we "celebrate" the anniversary of Apollo, when humans first walked on the moon. Yet, many question if we ever went. Why? Because if we had why aren't we still there and far beyond?

Our national human space program has failed -- if the goal was to push outwards the boundary of human presence. It is there for all to see, right on the runway, billions wasted on a program that never achieved its goals and our inability to get anywhere near we first tread over 40 years ago, let alone the first 150 miles. It is not accidental, it is not something unforetold, it is something we could have avoided and it cannot be excused -- given the blood and treasure we have spent in the name of making it not happen.

On the other hand our scientific space program has succeeded -- if the goal was to push back the boundary of human knowledge and understanding. It to is there for all to see, in the glorious images of telescopes like Hubble, in knowledge about our planet and the universe, in the tracks and signals of robotic explorers roaming planets and spaces far out into the unknown. This too was not accidental, it was something planned and executed, and something that although it might have been done more cheaply and efficiently, has returned to us incredible value for the price we have paid.

And what is the difference? What is the distinction between the rich returns reaped in our science programs and the utter failure of our human space program? Some would say it is because in one we used humans, and in the other machines -- the old "robots vs. people" argument. They would say we should end all human space enterprises because robots and machines have done a better job. And they would be partially right in their assessment, yet completely wrong in the causality of the failure -- and their suggested solution.

The real difference between the glories of our astronomical and robotic exploration programs and the failures of our human spaceflight programs are "decision" and "mission."

Although the process may be messy, our science community reaches a decision, puts together missions to go get the information, and usually (with some costly exceptions) proceeds directly to getting its results.

Our human space program since Apollo has had no consensus or even a clear central defining goal as to what it was for, what it needed to do, and how best to do it. This is the difference.
Sometimes robots and sometimes people are best in space. Our scientific exploration program has done amazing things using tools of electrons, glass and steel, but there is only one absolute reason for humans to be the tool at the end of the arm of our explorations -- to blaze the trail so that others might not just gaze upon but call home those places these explorers discover -- for as we have found on this body in space called Earth, if one human decides go to a place, others will try to follow.

The failure, the missing link, the lost element of our human space program to date is that we have not Decided our goal in space is to go there, look there and most importantly, to live there.

And being so lost in its direction, it has been wide open to those who would subvert its huge budgets and prestige for their own goals -- easy money, and a relatively few obviously dead end jobs. And thus it has failed, and will continue doing so -- no matter what projects are planned, hardware built, and how much money we throw at them before they are canceled too.

If this cycle continues, and all indications are that is what Congress intends, it will hinder the citizens trying to move in behind our explorers and create a space economy. Another way to look at it is if Lewis and Clark fail to do their job -- because they are being given the wrong job -- then the settlers following them cannot do theirs.

The lack of a NASA mandate to explore, report and move on rather than build rockets and buildings in space that do nothing but go in circles has cost us decades of a possibly amazing human expansion. We have squandered the momentum of Apollo and lost the passion of the people. We can get it back, but we need to decide once and for all that the goal of humans in space is to blaze the trail for more humans to go into space -- to stay.

We must define our mission in space as being the opening of the frontier to our civilization.

We must set the clear and obvious metric that success is human beings utilizing and harvesting space resources and making of these places new homes in an expanding wave moving ever outwards from this tiny blue marble of life.

This means NASA's astronauts must take on the role many thought they already had, exploring and learning to live beyond the Earth, a role that will regain glory and inspire new generations. It means handing off roles NASA has shown no competence doing -- lowering the cost of carrying people and payloads the first few miles of the way. Its aim must be outwards, while we, the people move in behind, doing the heavy lifting, saving billions for NASA, creating long term jobs in a new citizen space industry and creating a new economy in places long since explored -- like Earth orbit.

Congress, whose vision extends only as far as this year's pork, should butt out and allow NASA to do what it can do best, and stop forcing it to do things it does worst just to bring home the bacon as it fails. No more Senate Launch Systems and space capsules the private sector can do better, cheaper, faster.

Instead our government must incentivize and support citizen space companies in every way to build a vibrant and competitive new highway to space, and encourage other companies and universities to use those spaceships to build facilities such as laboratories, hotels and eventually communities in Low Earth Orbit and beyond.

This is how frontiers expand, this is how civilization grows, and this is what humans do.
When the wheels stop rolling on the shuttle and the old space program at last comes to a full stop, it will be time for us to decide.

Do we stand still and rest on the laurels of yesterday? Do we repeat the mistakes that led us in circles and finally back to this same spot from where we first departed?

Or do we hand the legacy of giants to the people who built the greatest nation in human history, and give them a chance to help open the frontier we have spent so much time and treasure blazing in their name?

Decide America. Decide.

This is not the end. It is the barest of beginnings, as the universe is vast and we are but children looking upwards for the first time.

Do we stay? Or do we go?