Reporter's Note: President Obama has often spoken of how he was inspired by the space program. And yet, the space shuttle missions are winding down under his watch, leaving no clear vision of what America’s future in space will look like. That’s the subject of today’s letter.
Dear Mr. President,
Did you see the shuttle launch this morning? I hope so. Like almost everyone else I am watching these last launches with particular interest. I'm trying to remain optimistic about this as a retrenching time - a period in which we will reexamine our goals in space, regroup, and reemerge soon with an invigorated commitment to space exploration. I'm trying. But I'm not having much success.
No matter how many times I’ve heard you talk about your vision for space, it just feels as if we are giving up. Oh sure, you say we’ll look to the private sector more, but I’m not sure what to think of that. You’ve made it clear that you don’t really trust the private sector to handle health care, and yet you think Bob’s Space Emporium can get us to infinity and beyond? That seems like a stretch. It’s like you've concluded that there is either nothing out in the universe worth finding, or we're not up to the task, or we just don't care anymore. And that makes me sad.
An awful lot of great accomplishments come amid uncertainty and difficulty. Remember what President Kennedy said in the 1960s when he launched the very space effort that you so often cite as a great inspiration? "We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.” Do you really want to be the president who sends the message: We're giving up, because we found out that it’s harder than we thought, and we’re just not good enough anymore. I know that is not what you want, and yet as it stands at this moment, I fear you will be the president whom historians will say pulled the plug on space and crippled our efforts to lead the world in technological advances.
You say many things about how you respect science. I know that you have challenged the scientific community to come up with new energy sources, lighter building materials, better batteries, swifter communication devices, smarter computers. But all of those things come about not from vague challenges, but rather from concrete efforts revolving around a grand target…like going to Mars for example.
Sure, you’ll take flak if you show real enthusiasm for the space program. We certainly have many earthbound problems. We have political, economic, and diplomatic strife. Many of our fellow Americans are struggling and they hate the idea of money being wasted on journeys into the sky. But all of that was true in the 1960s too. And we went to the moon anyway, because we knew it was important. It wasn't just the astronauts who had the right stuff. We had it as a country. We knew that leaders lead, and that is true of countries just as it is for individuals.
Anyway, I hope as you watch these final flights that you really think deeply about what we are giving up by retreating from our space efforts. And make no mistake: we are retreating. It was not just a space shuttle that left America this morning. It was part of our pride, our will, and our commitment to excellence; it was a portion of our dedication to producing the technological advances that have helped the entire planet.
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