Here's a contradiction for you: a recent poll by the Pew Research Center, which bills itself as a nonpartisan "fact tank" that provides information on attitudes and trends on important issues, indicated that the majority of Americans believe it is essential for the nation to stand at the summit of space exploration. The survey was released just three days before the July 8 launch of the final space shuttle mission, STS-135. Here is the kicker: the survey also found that a small majority of Americans believe that the 30-year shuttle program has been a sound investment.
Where have all these supporters been in recent years as the U.S. space program has struggled mightily to win funding among Washington politicians who seemingly could not care less whether it is the U.S., Europe or China that stands at the summit of space exploration?
Assuming the Pew survey can be taken at face value, and if enough Americans had been more vocal about how they feel, it would be nice to think that Congress and the Obama administration would have made the U.S. space program a higher priority. We will never know. Instead, the 30-year shuttle era draws to a close with the final flight of Atlantis, whose mission is to deliver 12 tons of equipment to the International Space Station (ISS) and return with more than nine tons of science samples and unneeded equipment that have no other means of retrieval.
The legacy of the space shuttle and whether its cost was worth the price in lives and national treasure will be debated well into the future. Even today, some individuals who served in senior NASA posts argue passionately that the shuttle should never have been built. Part of the problem is that early in the program the shuttle simply was oversold; engineers told members of Congress that missions might fly up to once a week, allowing NASA to amortize development costs over numerous launches.
No matter how you look at it, the shuttle was a remarkable engineering achievement that allowed humans to learn how to live and build in space. And the fact that this country chose to abandon such a capability without having the next generation technology ready to take the shuttle's place—having known for years the shuttle era would someday come to an end—is a national disgrace. Where has the critical thinking gone when it comes to U.S. space policy?
But it is not just the body politic in Washington who failed the country. It is the country as a whole—including the alleged legions of supporters of space exploration—that seems to have lost the ability to recognize the value of pushing the frontiers of science and technology.
I cannot help but wonder how many of the people who responded so enthusiastically to the Pew survey realize just how dependent the U.S. will be on Russia indefinitely to resupply ISS and put American astronauts into space.