A Sad End to the Era of US Space Domination

To veterans of America's adventures in space: astronauts, aerospace engineers and also the public-at-large, it was a period of inspired and unparalleled achievement: from President Kennedy's thrilling words in 1962, "man-on-the-moon-within-the-decade" as the declared goal - then its 1969 attainment; then a half-century of world domination of space - a prolonged period of great national pride. The achievement, however, was through costly expenditures in both lives and wealth (for which America was reluctantly also proud), struggling against the harsh, unforgiving realities of space. To every American save President Obama's most-ardent supporters, his recent words at Cape Canaveral were extremely sad to hear as they brought the curtain down on America's manned space ventures by ending the Space Shuttle program and drastically modifying Orion, the planned follow-on vehicle. To experienced space engineers and astronauts, Obama's attempt to emulate Kennedy's uplifting speech with talk of Mars seemed but empty chest-thumping and political posturing, even naive, as it ignored the enormous increase in distance, thus complexity, cost and human risk. With just the obvious ten-times-longer flight duration, a Mars mission would entail mind-numbing increases in hazards and complexity, such as the consequences of prolonged weightlessness. exposure to deadly cosmic radiation (without the essential protection of Planet Earth's magnetic core) and other unpredictable space perils.

Seeking to mitigate criticism of his cost-saving space policy, President Obama told NASA workers that his plans would save jobs, as well as steer a course toward manned missions to Mars. Concern at the space center had reached panic levels because of thousands of jobs at risk due to the retirement of the Space Shuttle program. Obama also declared the drastic modification of the Constellation program, designed by the prior administration to ferry American astronauts to and from the Space Station and moon. Obama reaffirmed the plan to salvage a crew capsule from the program - to be called Orion - but which would now serve only as an emergency escape pod from the International Space Station.

In addition to these significant program losses, the skeptical and disheartened - but realistic - Florida community also expects a loss of 9,000 supporting jobs with the ending of both Space Shuttle and Constellation programs. In addition, another 14,000 job losses are expected to occur in local and related travel industries, including restaurants, hotels and retail shops.

"The bottom line," said Obama, "is, nobody is more committed to manned space flight, to human exploration of space, than I am. But we've got to do it in a smart way," What was not said, however, was that America would no longer be capable of even transporting its own astronauts to Space Station, and would now have to pay Russia for such haulage. Adding financial injury to the insult to American national pride, Russia immediately doubled its previous charge per U.S. astronaut for a Soyuz ride to or from Space Station.

Pledging a "transformative agenda" for NASA, Obama sketched an ambitious vision of developing spacecraft capable of journeys into deep space by 2025, and by the mid-2030s, to send astronauts to an asteroid, then into an orbit about Mars and finally landing on its surface. "And I expect to be around to see it," he said.

Obama also promised a $6 billion increase in NASA's budget to increase Earth-based observation of climate change (seemingly more important to Obama than U.S. space dominance), and to bolster support for private space companies. To experts, the present-day, private-company offerings of an exciting "space" ride for $200,000 (providing a glimpse of space to wealthy adventurers), totally lacks the capability of orbiting Earth and reaching the Space station or moon. (To achieve orbit, a capsule must be rocketed to at least 18,000 miles per hour, not just attain high altitude.)

A critical comment was made by Karan Conklin, who oversees a Space Museum in Titusville, Fla., "It's not just the local community that will be affected, it'll be the whole nation - we won't be No. 1 in space anymore," Obama's proposed changes prompted Apollo astronaut Neil Armstrong, the first man on the moon, to emerge briefly from reclusion to complain that the U.S. space program was being reduced to "second-rate or even third-rate stature."

Several Republicans, including Sen. David Vitter of Louisiana and Rep. Rob Bishop of Utah, assailed Obama's speech, calling his plans "job-killing". "The president's new plans for NASA are flat-out irresponsible," Vitter said. "He has evidently decided... to simply walk away from manned space."

Neil Armstrong did not attend the Obama speech and was not mentioned by Obama, however Buzz Aldrin, an Apollo 11 crew-mate, was praised by Obama and flew with the president on Air Force One to attend the speech.

A recent medical study solidifies the doubt of feasibility of Obama's vision for Mars: the news headings tell the tale: "Space Flu, Other Woes Being Probed", and "Researcher looking into links between lack of gravity, illness". The story reports that almost half of the Apollo astronauts - certainly the most physically fit of humans imaginable - came down with flu-type infections during or immediately after the Apollo flights. A mission to Mars or to an asteroid would be many-fold longer and thus much more inimical to the human body's immune system, compared to the three-day trips to the moon.


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