As we've seen in the ensuing decades of budget-castrated human spaceflight programs, fatally flawed management practices and tragic losses that didn't have to happen, NASA's star has clearly faded. In the process, so has the national will to pay for it.
As I write this, Space Shuttle Discovery orbits the planet a mere few hours after undocking from the International Space Station. Her second-to-last mission, STS-131, is scheduled to end Monday morning with a landing at Florida's Shuttle Landing Facility (wiki), after which only three missions remain before the shuttle fleet is grounded for good. Despite President Barack Obama's rather significant speech* Friday calling for renewed focus on beyond-the-moon exploration, the fact remains that there is no post-shuttle U.S. capability to achieve low-earth orbit, and the very core of American human spaceflight knowledge is about to be scattered to the wind.
I got to discuss this very issue with AM640 Toronto radio host John Downs this past Friday (I chat with him live on-air most Fridays from about 8:30 to 9:00 p.m. You can tune in here) and as I did my best to explain why this stuff matters to a mostly uninterested public, I found myself wishing we spent more time focusing on this and less time on Kate Gosselin. Reality television washouts don't inspire our kids. I firmly believe that edge-of-the-envelope scientific achievement, on the other hand, does.
As a Canadian, the current space malaise hits an especially raw nerve. Anyone who was around for Canada's Avro Arrow (CF-105) debacle will understand what it feels like to have world-leading scientific capability destroyed by lack of political leadership and will. The irony that the suddenly-out-of-work Canadian scientists and engineers went on to join NASA's moon program in droves isn't lost on me.
Your turn: What inspires you?
* Additional links: