Photo by NASA.
A long time ago on government property far, far away, a program was created to send Americans into the cosmos of outer space. In lieu of Russia launching Sputnik, the United States called in their troops to begin traveling in space and remain on the forefronts of discovery. The men called to action were looked upon by children as the closest things to real-life superheroes. In the world of “cool”, becoming an astronaut now trumped becoming a New York Yankee. The men, with chiseled jaw lines and perfect hair risked their lives in testing out rockets that sent them higher into the sky than anybody else had ever reached in history.
People of all ages knew the names John Glenn, Gus Grissom, Pete Knight, Buzz Aldrin, and Neil Armstrong. These individuals were proving the capabilities of the technological advancements and everybody wanted to become part of the ride. Televisions were brought into classrooms to watch the launches of space shuttles and regularly televised programs were interrupted with updates about the boys in space.
Space travel continued for decades. Everyone grew up surrounded by pictures of men and women floating around in zero gravity, space-walking, and playing golf on the moon. The biggest dream people could have was to become an astronaut as no other occupation could surmount but as of July 2011, this dream started to dwindle. NASA has ceased their shuttle program, ending over 30 years of manned flights to outer space.
Can children still envision themselves strapping on a space suit and traveling to other worldly places? NASA says yes. They are now focusing on four different areas to keep the United States involved with deep space research. This includes researching new forms of manned travel, continuing to deploy astronauts to the International Space Station, developing unmanned missions to research the nether regions of the solar system and exploring ways to send people to Mars. On paper, NASA’s goals sound great and would keep a third grader full of excitement as they envision walking on the surface of the closest planet to Earth. However, some people are skeptical as to how much impact the US space program will have now that they put the brakes on shuttle launches.
The original plan to continue space exploration after the shuttle missions came to an end was the enactment of the Constellation Program. This program was focused on developing new spacecrafts to replace the shuttles and NASA had already outlined plans for developments of two new crafts. Upon completion of the spacecrafts, astronauts would continue their low orbit missions as they have for decades. The program also started looking into planning a manned trip to a nearby asteroid  and the production of an outpost on the surface of the moon by 2020 and a trip to Mars sometime in the 2030s. As exciting as the Constellation Program sounded, it did not receive political traction. With the American economy heading to the gutter and different politicians butting heads over their personal agendas, President Obama put the kibosh on the whole deal, ending Constellation and all the dreams tied along with it.
As the US slows down their space research, other countries are just getting started. China and India are now joining the game while political leaders like Congressman Rob Bishop believe the United States will soon be choking on the dust of the new contenders making American astronauts a thing of the past. The end of the space shuttles and the cancellation of the Constellation Program have made American astronauts incapable of getting into space on their own for the first time since travel outside of Earth first began. For the time being, Americans are hitching a ride in Russian shuttles and may continue to do so for decades to come.
This does not mean that all is lost for the hopes of the third grader dreaming of space exploration. Technology has enabled civilians to take matters into their own hands and personally take adventurers into outer space without the assistance of NASA. For the inexpensive price of $200,000, Virgin Galactic will take people into low orbit, just as the astronauts do, and float around in zero gravity as they look at their planet below. Several other companies are now getting involved in this market at what they hope will become a new industry that solely focuses on space tourism.
So rest tight, young third grader. Dreams never officially die out. There are plenty of people who dreamed of becoming a knight when they were young. Renaissance fairs and Medieval Times help them live out this dream. Whenever there is a strong enough desire to become part of something bigger than themselves, people find a way to make it happen. Unlike knighthood, traveling in space is in no danger of becoming just a fantasy or a form a dinner theater. Zero gravity feels just as amazing whether someone is wearing a spacesuit that has been made by NASA or Virgin.
1. Stover, Dawn. NASA’s New Target. Popular Science. December 5, 2007.