In a 1962 address to the graduates of Rice University, John F. Kennedy famously pledged to land a man on the moon by the end of the decade: "We set sail on this new sea because there is new knowledge to be gained, and new rights to be won, and they must be won and used for the progress of all people." Seven years later, NASA followed through, and the first human -- an American -- stepped foot on a surface outside of Earth.
At 5:56 this morning, Atlantis touched down at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, ending the age of the space shuttle. After 30 years of operation, the fleet -- which also included Discovery and Endeavour -- heads to retirement. It is a whimpering end to a period of repetitive missions that lost the imagination of the country.
After Apollo 17 left the moon in December 1972, progress in manned space exploration slowed; no human has left low-Earth orbit since then. NASA's shuttle program was designed to build upon the success of Apollo, allowing humans to return to space on a regular basis in reusable vehicles. But the program locked NASA into a routine. The International Space Station (ISS), where the shuttles docked, provided a laboratory for experiments on the human body's ability to withstand extended stays in space. That research was meant to lay the ground for future space exploration, but it turned into NASA's only reason for sending people into space. Astronauts became scientists in glorified labs floating 240 miles above the surface, making discoveries that, while scientifically important, did little to expand the space frontier. Shuttle launches became nonevents you only stumbled upon while flipping through local-access channels late at night.
At a time when Washington is consumed by debt-reduction talk, manned spaceflight may seem superfluous. Critics point to the lower cost of sending robots to produce similar scientific results. But that ignores the value of space exploration as inspiration, an endeavor that shifts the very notion of humanity and its limitations. When Apollo 11 landed on the moon, we were no longer earthbound. Those of us born after 1969 grew up with a different conception of our place in the universe. We saw pictures of Earth from afar in textbooks. Detailed images from Voyager 1 and 2 presented foreign, bizarre landscapes. Just as Copernicus's rejection of the earth-centric universe rocked the Medieval understanding of where we stood among the cosmos, when astronauts leave the Earth's atmosphere, it inspires us to imagine a world beyond the one we know.
For progressives dismissive of all this inspirational mumbo-jumbo, investing in manned spaceflight will pay other dividends. Spaceflight is one of the clearest examples of something the government can do that the private market cannot. New missions are risky investments that involve false starts, mistakes, and dead ends. They can't make money in the short term; it is scientific inquiry freed from the profit motive. But the government can pool collective resources to invest in ventures with no immediate payoff -- innovation and practical application come down the line. The space race led to many discoveries that have now trickled down to affect everyday life. Computers, cell phones, GPS, and even lightweight home insulation all owe a debt to space research. No one at NASA in 1960 could have known they were working on the iPhone.
Investing in manned spaceflight, which the public supports, is an easy way for President Barack Obama to push government-funded research and development. A lot of the research that goes into launching people past Earth's inner orbit would center around new ways to harness energy on other planets we visit, which could lead to advancements in alternative energy technologies here. A moon base can't sustain itself without exploiting its resources into fuel, so NASA will have to come up with technology such as fuel cells that can run without oil.
Obama hasn't seized this opportunity. In 2004, George W. Bush promised to create a vehicle that would return us to the moon by 2020, carry astronauts to the ISS, and set in motion the schedule for the shuttle's current demise. It was a hodgepodge goal, doomed by lack of focus and commitment. President Obama abandoned the plan upon taking office. In his major speech on space policy in April 2010, he proposed landing on an asteroid by 2025 and launching an orbital Mars mission sometime in the mid-2030s. It was good rhetoric but lacked accompanying federal funding. At its peak in 1966, NASA's $6 billion ate up nearly 4.5 percent of the federal budget. The $18.7 billion NASA had to spend in the 2011 budget represents less than half of 1 percent of all federal spending. That's less than the annual $20 billion the military devotes to air-conditioning in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Obama's plan for bold space exploration was largely pro forma: Maintaining America's presence at the ISS was his main concern. The president shifted the onus of ferrying American astronauts into low-Earth orbit to the private market, but it is unclear if the nascent field of companies that have begun to build ships and rockets can entirely fill the gap left by the shuttle's retirement. But it was the right idea. Now that the government has developed the basic technology for low-Earth space travel, the free market can step in. However, Obama didn't pair this policy with an idea for NASA's next bold adventure. We've had many small steps for mankind. We need the next giant leap.
Building a settlement on another planetary body must become the driving goal of U.S. space policy. As Princeton astrophysicist Christopher Chyba says, "Humanity should become a space faring civilization. ... If that is not the point of human space flight, what the hell are we doing?" Give NASA the funds, task them with establishing a moon base and landing an American on Mars. Are we a few generations away from of humans settling the moon or Mars? Perhaps, but the process of discovery that goes into trying to get there is just as important as achieving the goal. It allows us to dream new dreams and gain the benefits of research in the meantime.