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Outside Editorial: End of an era at NASA

Posted: July 16, 2011 - 8:42pm  |  Updated: July 16, 2011 - 8:49pm

The following editorial first appeared in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram:

Thoughts of space travel have long stirred human imaginations. A second-century rhetorician named Lucian wrote of flying to the moon on man-made wings. His literary successors kept visions of that dream alive for more than a millennium and a half before Apollo 11’s commander, Neil Armstrong, stepped off the Eagle lunar module’s ladder on July 20, 1969, and uttered the historic words: “That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.”

As a species, humans are compelled by innate curiosity to see what’s over the next hill and beyond the next tree line. The depths of the ocean and the heights of space are probed because people want to know what is unknown.

Apollo 11’s safe completion answered the challenge President John F. Kennedy issued May 25, 1961: To send a man to the moon by the end of the decade. It took a national commitment of $24 billion and 400,000 workers to make it happen. Eight U.S. astronauts died in flying and training accidents leading up to Apollo 11’s successful return.

The administration could have ignored the Soviets’ milestone of being first to put a man into space on April 12, 1961, when cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin successfully orbited the Earth in Vostok 1. But this new frontier was too important to leave for America’s Cold War adversary to explore unchallenged.

The development of NASA was inevitable.

In the 50th anniversary year of that first manned flight, it’s undeniable that space technology played a crucial role in the creation and development of our highly networked world. Without the Space Age, the Information Age — with its apps and smartphones and 24/7 satellite channels — might never have dawned.

Once, a space-eye view of the Earth was a magical wonder. Now, it’s almost old hat.

“People who have grown up in the age of satellites may find them no more remarkable than streetlights or storm sewers. They’re infrastructure,” wrote The Washington Post’s Joel Achenbach. “Sputnik plus the Internet equals Google Maps. Click on ‘satellite,’ zoom in, and you can see your house from space.”

The space journeys that made Google Maps, self-righting life rafts and strengthened hip implants possible didn’t occur without a cost, both in lives and in dollars. Throughout the U.S. manned space program, critics have asked whether the costs were worth the gains.

The final spacewalk of the shuttle program took place Tuesday as U.S. astronauts Ron Garan and Mike Fossum stepped outside the International Space Station to transfer equipment, stow a broken ammonia pump and hook up a robotic refueling experiment. As much as the nation was once fixated and fascinated by the idea of humans in space, that last walk marked the end of a 30-year program that many Americans took for granted even as technological advancements occurred in the ether far above their heads.

Shuttle Atlantis commander Chris Ferguson, pilot Doug Hurley and mission specialists Rex Walheim and Sandra Magnus are scheduled to touch down July 20 at Kennedy Space Center in Florida. For thousands of NASA employees, their return signals the beginning of an end they knew had been coming since 2004, when President George W. Bush announced the program’s completion.

NASA won’t be shutting down its facilities across the country. Unmanned space exploration will continue as soon as Saturday, when the Dawn spacecraft is scheduled to begin a yearlong exploration of the asteroid Vesta to help scientists understand the earliest chapter of the solar system’s history. But unless and until private firms step up to lead the next phase of manned space exploration, the Russian Soyuz will be the only way for future ISS crews to come and go from their astrolab.

The irony is inescapable.

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