WASHINGTON, September 4, 2014 – Just after midnight on June 11, 1979, Stan Thornton was startled awake by a series of loud explosions. This was followed by the thud of objects pelting his roof.
After 34,980 orbits, NASA’s 77-ton Skylab, America’s first space station, tumbled through earth’s atmosphere, shattered into fragments, its pieces scattering across the Australian continent.
Hearing that the San Francisco Examiner had offered a $10,000 reward to the first person to bring a piece of Skylab to its offices, Thornton gathered the fragments from his backyard and caught the next flight to California.
NASA verified the pieces as genuine Skylab, and the Examiner made good on its reward.
Thornton’s gain was America’s loss. U.S. taxpayers were out the equivalent of $10 billion in today’s dollars. Increased solar activity caused the earth’s upper atmosphere to expand, resulting in the rapid decay of Skylab’s orbit.
NASA was in a period of transition, phasing out the Apollo lunar program for its new fleet of Space Shuttles. The Shuttle was supposed to save Skylab. Mother Nature, however, intervened before NASA’s first reusable space vehicle launched from Cape Canaveral in 1981.
When Space Shuttle Atlantis ended its 13-day orbital mission and rolled to a stop at Florida’s Kennedy Space Center on July 21, 2011, America’s half century of manned space flight came to an abrupt end.
And, once again, NASA entered a period of transition.
“When I became the NASA administrator [President Obama] charged me with three things,” Charles Bolden told Al Jazeera America. “One, he wanted me to help re-inspire children to want to get into science and math; he wanted me to expand our international relationships; and third, and perhaps foremost, he wanted me to find a way to reach out to the Muslim world and engage much more with dominantly Muslim nations to help them feel good about their historic contribution to science, math and engineering.”
Bolden made no mention of putting Americans back in space.
Currently, the only way for U.S. astronauts to get to the International Space Station (ISS) is to hitch a ride on a Russian Soyuz rocket.
When the United States recently imposed sanctions on Russia in response to her military moves in Ukraine, Russia’s Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin quipped that our astronauts would need trampolines to get to the ISS.
Ironically, U.S. Federal Judge Susan Brandin imposed a temporary injunction on the importation of Russian-made RD-180 rocket engines to the U.S. as a violation of U.S. sanctions. The RD-180 is a key component of America’s Atlas 5 rocket. Without Russia’s RD-180, “critical national-security satellite missions could be delayed up to four years, experts told a joint Senate hearing,” said Fox News.
NASA director Bolden’s pep talks concerning the Muslim contribution to “science, math and engineering” are not a topic of concern to Islamic State militants busily expanding their murderous caliphate. Let’s just say their baser instincts push them in a direction having little to do with Galileo’s scientific method.
When America launched the first module of the International Space Station into earth orbit in 1998, the unstated purpose of the U.S.-sponsored project was to keep Russian scientists employed following the collapse of the Soviet Union. It was feared they might sell their scientific expertise to the world’s rogue nations.
The new Russia, under former KGB head Vladimir Putin, is one such rogue nation.
And Russia announced it will end all space flights to the International Space Station in six years’ time. That gives the United States a very small window of opportunity to get a manned space program together in time to save another space station from falling back to earth.
Since the election of Obama in 2008, America’s economy has been retooled to save our collapsing entitlement state. The administration announced a reduction of U.S. military forces to levels not seen since Japan attacked our Pacific fleet at Pearl Harbor. And the president canceled NASA’s Constellation program, which was meant to replace the Space Shuttle.
America has foolishly surrendered the strategic low… and high ground.
U.S. leaders would do well to heed astronaut Alan Shepard’s 1961 advice to NASA’s Mission Control, “Why don’t you fix your little problem and light this candle?”