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April 17th, 2012
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Letters to the President #1184: 'Enough space to say goodbye'

Reporter's Note: I write to President Obama every day.

Dear Mr. President,

Watching the space shuttle get carried over DC on the back of that plane this morning was exciting. It was fascinating just to look at the way it has been scarred and battered by all those trips beyond the atmosphere, and I can't wait to see it at the Smithsonian’s Air and Space facility out by Dulles airport. But I have to tell you, I’m not ready.

I’m not ready yet to admit that we are no longer a space faring nation. Oh sure, you can tell me about how we’re going to hitch rides with the Russians, and how sometime in the future we’ll have a new rocket system of our own for leaping away from the earth. But all of that feels kind of like science fiction now: like something that might happen someday if we’re lucky, if we can afford it, if political leaders like the idea, if private industry gets involved, if the Chinese don’t punk us so badly by beating us to Mars that we just give up, if, if, if...

Often I read history, and you know what has always puzzled me? The Portugese. In the 15th and 16th centuries, they were unbeatable on the high seas. Portugese ships and explorers were masters of the universe (at least as we knew it), constantly sailing away on bold, brave, exciting quests to find new lands, new trade routes, new wonders with which to enrich their kingdom and dazzle the world. And yet, the Portugese let it all slip away.

I suppose that is what troubles me most: not that we may find parts of our space program in need of revamping, but rather that somehow this feels like a retreat from greatness in general. It's as if we’re growing too timid, too safety-conscious– too afraid of losing, and so never entering the race.

I’ve said it before: Space matters. If we want to have the best economy, the strongest nation, the most educated and successful society– not just for our good, but for the good of the planet– we need to nurture the best scientists, the best engineers, and the best mathematicians. Nothing does that quite like a robust, growing space program. Sure it is expensive, but the returns far outweigh the costs, in terms of technology, consumer goods, discoveries, communications, and so forth. Of course it is dangerous, but so is driving to work. And yes, the future is uncertain, but that is why they call it exploration.

Anyway, if you want to go see the shuttle when it is finally set up at the museum, give me a call. But please don’t be offended if I pass. Like I said, I’m not yet ready to accept that America has backed away from the final frontier, because for me, it’s like we’re running away from the future.

Regards,

Tom

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