The safe pre-dawn return of Atlantis on Thursday brought with it sighs of relief but also of sadness: relief, that mission ST-135 had concluded safely, but sadness that the shuttle program, launched thirty years ago, has ended.
The statistics speak for themselves: “355 individuals from 16 countries have flown on a shuttle since the first mission blasted off on April 12, 1981”, according to USC’s Annenburg News. “During the 30 years of launchings, more than 542 million miles were logged and more than 2,000 science experiments were conducted. The shuttles have also docked with two space stations, the Russian Mir and the International Space Station; and deployed 180 payloads, including satellites”. How ironic it is, that after the
Cold War reached its height in the early ‘80’s and in part fueled the frenzy to maintain our leading edge in space, our astronauts and equipment will, for the foreseeable future, have to hitch rides on the Russian Soyuz rocket.
Hours after Atlantis glided home safely, CBS Evening News reported: “Now that Soyuz is the only way for U.S. astronauts to travel up and down, NASA keeps a full-time manager who lives at Russia’s space complex near Moscow. He’s Mark Polansky, who resides in a suburban-style home built especially for visiting Americans. He was an air force officer back when the US and the then-soviet union battled it out for space supremacy.
“ ‘I was a fighter pilot when the Cold War was still going on,’ he said. ‘And if anybody had told me that when I was flying F-15s that I’d now be living with my family in Russia, I’d have never believed them in a million years.’
“In 1957, Elizabeth Palmer of CBS continues, “the Soviets launched the Sputnik satellite and the space race. Four years later, cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin went into orbit and round one went to the Soviet Union. Eight years later, the U.S. evened up the score by putting a man on the moon.
“But the astronomical costs of this race helped bankrupt the Soviet Union and end the Cold War. Only America could continue building new shuttles. The Russians had to stick with the 1960s-era Soyuz, which did bring Cady Coleman safely back to earth just last month.” (July 21, 2011).
Following the landing, former shuttle commander Charlie Bolden spoke from his position as current NASA Administrator: “Children who dream of being astronauts today may not fly on the space shuttle but, one day, they may walk on Mars.... And just like those who came before us, we have an obligation to set an ambitious course.” At a cost of $113.7 billion over the course of the Shuttle program’s life, that “ambitious course” cost us almost $210 per mile (for the 542 million miles covered by the five shuttles). As Atlantis’s four crewmembers beamed before the camera, even this price tag - so much higher than what had first been estimated - seemed justified.
How telling that our heroes would return from the picturesque tranquility of outer space to an increasingly bitter face-off in the politics of finance.
Friday’s breakdown in talks between President Obama and Republican House Speaker John Boehner heightened anxiety around our beautiful blue-green planet that the United States, now the world’s reigning superpower, might, for the first time in its two-hundred-thirty-five year history, default.
“D-Day” is fast approaching. Beginning August 2th, our nation may fail to meet its financial obligations, with potentially catastrophic consequences at home and abroad. What we Americans shelled out for the Shuttle program is far overshadowed by our yearly interest payments on our national debt. Last fiscal year, it was $414 billion. That’s over three and a half times more than the total Space Shuttle Program outlay. If we begin defaulting, a chain-reaction will occur across the globe that will cripple our efforts to stabilize our economy. With this in mind, it’s deeply disturbing to see our representatives in government’s highest levels incapable (or unwilling) to reach a compromise. Extremely important values are at play and at risk, it is true. But so is the fiscal survival of the United States.
The irony is that the number of very-rich is still fast increasing. With over ten million millionaires in the world (one-quarter of these in the U.S.A.), and with 413 billionaires in the United States boasting a total net worth of $1.5 trillion (see Forbes, March 2011), it must seem a travesty to the four astronauts stepping down from their heavenly mission to know that so many Americans have lost everything, and that thousands of children in America go to sleep hungry. At the same time, our total national debt is well beyond payment, even by all our rich people combined: $14,342,884,944,996.28.
What solution is there, then, except in keeping up the good fight? The day is over when charlatans, white-collar thieves, and unscrupulous financiers who profit from the fiscal ignorance of ordinary people ruled our nation.
They, together with millions who craved for easy money and dreamt of an unending escalation of investment values, including politicians returning favors with pork-barrel funding and special-interest perks, have sown the seeds of economic woe we’re now harvesting. But the only way out is the way forward. We got into this mess together; the solution is to accept our own responsibility…and to prayerfully tighten our belts. Our nation is still destined for greatness. But we’ll have to pay more now to reach the stars.