I visited Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral last week. I was there to watch the shuttle launch, a launch eventually cancelled due to equipment failures. Missing that take-off was deeply disappointing but that disappointment was replaced by lots of awe as the missus and I checked out the static displays and other space related mock-ups and exhibits at their sprawling complex not an hour east of Orlando.
It’s an incredible and inspiring place that takes you back to a time when the U.S. of A. took and kept the lead in all things related to space and aeronautics.
Which made the visit bitter-sweet. That leadership role is now being squandered. The shuttle launch, scheduled at this point for the end of this month, will be one of the last two or three of the program. After that, America will need to rely on other countries in the short term to put our people into orbit.
But we’re not just squandering leadership in space. Roy Harris Jr., a retired head of aeronautics at our local NASA Center, paints the bleak picture as to America’s declining role in the arena we at one time owned fully:
The plight of NASA’s aeronautics program has been lost in the debate over the future of NASA.
This highly effective research program, which has been the flagship program for the Langley Research Center for 90 years and which enabled the U.S. to achieve world aviation supremacy after WWI and maintain it for more than nine decades, has been relegated to the lowest priority and reduced to near oblivion.
Research test facilities are no longer well maintained, and many of the top researchers have moved on to other NASA programs.
Without a major change in the priority of NASA’s aeronautics program, there is little hope for sustained world leadership of aeronautics R&T by NASA.
All of this comes at a time when our nation faces huge technical challenges to the future of civil and military aviation. NASA should be leading an effort to address these issues with a major new program focused on “green” aviation technologies. NASA should also initiate a major new effort to develop the technologies that will enable continued long-term growth in our air transportation system.
Further, it makes no sense at all for NASA’s technical expertise and test facilities not to be used to help solve military aviation problems.
The importance of aviation to U.S. competitiveness and defense demand that NASA expand and revitalize its aeronautics program. To meet the challenges, the program needs a budget in the $1.0 billion a year range and a revitalized management structure focused on technical leadership and research excellence with significant industry and university participation.
Unfortunately, the current uncertainty in the future direction of NASA’s human space flight program, which overwhelms all other NASA issues, and the federal budget realities do not bode well for the future of the aeronautics program.
Uncertainties fueled by a President who looks to America’s past with disdain rather than pride and who seems to be doing his level best to dismantle the one government program that has reaped the most benefit to America and the world.
Sad, very sad, stuff.