The United States now no longer has the capability to fly people into orbit. Any American scientists or engineers selected to serve a term aboard the ISS, for example, will need to take a connecting flight to Russia for the lift.
NASA was formally given money and a mandate to develop the STS by President Nixon in 1969. Six presidents later, in 2004, President Bush elected to retire the shuttles — which proved to be expensive and unsafe — in favor of developing a new set of rockets capable of lifting material and people into orbit, and perhaps taking us back to the moon.
However, in 2011, President Obama elected to curtail funding for the development of any means of manned space flight, leaving the U.S. without any manned-spaceflight resource even on the drawing board.
It is too expensive, not to mention dangerous, to fly people into space, some say. We have accomplished great things in space using robotic spacecraft — like the Pioneer and Voyager probes, the Hubble Space Telescope, and the Mars Exploration Rovers.
And great missions are ongoing and in the works. For example, the New Horizons spacecraft is presently en route to distant Pluto and the farthest reaches of the solar system. And the planned James Webb Space Telescope — a successor to the Hubble — will be capable of observing the most distant objects in the universe, objects that are well beyond what can be seen from Earth or by the Hubble.
Robots can accomplish more in space than humans can. But, in my view, manned spaceflight is where it’s at. Maybe I feel this way because, when I was a child — pre-video games (“Pong” cannot be called a video game by today’s standards) and pre-Internet — I did my own exploring in real life.
Some years ago, my father passed on to me for safe-keeping the Furton family slide collection. Slides — you know, the little squares of exposed film that you put in a projector and display on a screen across the room.
The first years of the Furton family slide collection are rich in pictures of people: newborn babies, first-day-of-school pictures, pictures of Christmas celebrations and Thanksgiving feasts, family and friends.
But, in later years, when my sisters and I were in our teens, the pictures are less of people and more of places and things. Lots of pictures of buildings from our vacation to Washington, D.C. Lots of pictures of mountains and rivers from our great vacation “out west.”
I set up a projector and flip through some of the Furton family slides from time to time, and this I know for a fact: After all these years, the pictures of people are the ones that amaze.
Mount Rushmore is Mount Rushmore, whether it was photographed in 1972 or 2011. But the picture of my dad cutting my hair while my sister looks on from her playpen is one of a kind.
I would like to see a picture of an American standing on Mars rather than a closeup of a tiny moon of Pluto.
— By Doug Furton, a Grand Haven resident and a member of the physics faculty at GVSU. Send questions and suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org.