Cliff Redding
Nov 15, 2011

The U.S. Space Program has traveled full circle

Like the businessman who used to drive his luxury car to work but now has to take the bus, the United States is using its own form of public transportation to get to space.  A week ago, when the Soyuz TMA-22 blasted off into space, NASA’s space program began a new era: hitching rides to the International Space Station on Russian spacecraft.


That’s right, the United States has gone from racing – and, at times, leading – Russia and the rest of the world when it comes to space exploration, to traveling shotgun with them.   Shotgun.  We’re riding shotgun, when we used to be driving ... and it's not even our car!


This summer, after 135 flights and 30 years, the space shuttle Atlantis landed in the pre-dawn light at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Although NASA's space program is hardly over, the space shuttle’s final flight marked the end of the proverbial era. You can fault budget cuts for the most part. Space exploration, in its early era, was driven by a “Space Race” between the Soviet Union and the United States, the launch of the first man-made object to orbit the Earth, the USSR's Sputnik 1 on Oct. 4, 1957, and the first lunar landing by Armstrong and the crew of Apollo 11 on July 20, 1969, are often taken as the boundaries for this initial period.  


In the 2000s, the People’s Republic of China initiated a manned spaceflight program. The European Union, Japan and India have also planned future manned space missions. China, Russia, Japan, and India have advocated manned missions to the moon during the 21st century, while the European Union has advocated manned missions to both the moon and Mars during this century. There goes the technology gap widening, but the U.S. is no longer leading the pack.  


Many technologies that began their journey to the Moon have crossed boundaries here on Earth, reaching immense commercial markets for a kaleidoscope of uses, and the U.S. space program is responsible.


Think, for a minute, what life might be like without some of the following, spinoffs of the space program: Quartz clocks, athletic footwear Light-Emitting Diodes (LEDs), infrared ear thermometers, artificial limbs, ventricular assist devices, anti-icing systems, highway safety improved radial tires, chemical detection video enhancing and analysis systems, land mine removal, fire-resistant reinforcement firefighter gear, memory foam, enriched baby food, portable cordless vacuums, freeze drying technology, harnessing solar energy, water purification, powdered lubricants, scratch resistant lenses, cordless tools, etc.


Some would say that these (and this is just a partial list of innovations that came from the space program) were not worth the money spent on the space program, that they weren’t cost effective.   Others would disagree, but can you imagine a world without cordless tools? Or freeze-dried nutrition? Or athletic footwear?  


Neil Armstrong and Eugene Cernan, the first and last men to walk upon the moon have testified at a Congressional hearing that NASA is a national disgrace. "Today we are on a path of decay," testified Armstrong’s fellow ex-astronaut Cernan, who said goodbye to the moon on Dec. 14, 1972, bringing the curtain down on the U.S. Apollo program. “The U.S. space program is “embarrassing and unacceptable,” Armstrong said.  The United States, once the lead space and tech innovator, has fallen by the wayside and it’s lost its world standing.  Armstrong, Cernan and a host of others are right, and that is a shame.