Guest Commentary by Attorney Frank Thomas

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Guest Commentary by Attorney Frank Thomas Reprinted with permission from the Nov. 7, 2010, issue of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

I was 10 when Sputnik appeared. The Russian orb, scantly a pebble, was the first human object to skim the final frontier on Oct. 4, 1957. My friends and I, like kids across the country, responded by running outside. Eyes and necks strained, we hoped to glimpse this faint new star as it skidded silently across the constellations.

Few of us actually saw it from our backyards in Pittsburgh, but we did notice that the sky had changed. It was still dark, there was still one moon, and there were still stars beyond counting. Mystery remained. But it was mystery of a different sort – mystery to be examined, explored, maybe even explained.

For the next few summers, many of us went to “space camps,” vowing to become astronauts and aerospace engineers even if it meant giving up on Little League Baseball. There would be rockets to build and dimensions to travel! For me, the journey began at the Buhl Planetarium on the North Side, where promises of spacesuit adventures mixed with the mechanics of rocket assembly.

Impossible dreams? Hardly.
Sure, there were Vanguard rocket explosions and other disappointments. Yet America responded to the soaring words of the young President John F. Kennedy:

We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energy and skills, because that challenge is one we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone and one we intend to win ….

His canny vice president, Lyndon B. Johnson, put it more bluntly: “In the eyes of the world, first in space means first, period; second in space is second in everything.”

Seven years after Kennedy’s summons – in a cosmic blink of an eye – men were Moon walking. Better: they were “our” men.

After them, America’s daughters and sons would command the Space Shuttles, build the Hubble, surround the planet with GPS satellites and lead the construction of the International Space Station.

Despite my summers at Buhl, personal glory slipped from my grasp with the high school realization that I would never master calculus. That was OK. As an American, I owned a share of NASA’s success. And it seemed obvious that most spacefarers would wear NASA patches.

The U.S. drops out
Fifty-three years after Sputnik, the human space adventure continues. But Americans are no longer the adventurers. For half a century, we chose to do many hard things. And then we chose to quit. Consequence? With the imminent retirement of the Space Shuttle fleet, Americans are soon to become hitchhikers in the galaxy rather than captains of the universe.

If spaceflight is the Olympics of human destiny, then we already know who will be competing for the gold over the next decade. It will not be the United States. Manned spaceflight is a complex enterprise – projects take many years to go from concept to completion – so the five finalists in the medal round will be:

Russia. Soyuz rockets routinely carry the astronauts of many nations to the International Space Station. Russia is maintaining its investment in heavy-lifting launchers, giving that nation a major advantage in the human exploration of the cosmos. Once NASA’s shuttles are retired, Russia will control everyone’s manned access to space (except for China) for several years. Within a year, American astronauts will have to buy their launch tickets in Moscow rather than at Cape Canaveral.

China. Chinese astronauts have been traveling to Earth orbit on Chinese rockets since 2003. Over the next 10 years, the country’s ambitious plans include placing a manned space station into Earth orbit and landing an unmanned rover on the moon as a step toward sending humans there. China is unlikely to invite our astronauts along for the ride, since the United States blocked its participation in the International Space Station.

India. By mid-decade, India is expected to place its own astronauts into Earth orbit. India’s space program is mature and sophisticated, having already created one of the largest satellite communications systems. If India’s engineers are given the resources, they may well orbit astronauts around the moon by 2020 and achieve a lunar landing a few years later. The country’s cosmic aspirations are fueled, in part, by the prestige factor of the undeclared “Asian space race” among India, China and Japan.

Japan. The Japanese have a trained astronaut corps and a noteworthy presence in space. They have added a sizable laboratory module to the space station, developed and launched a cargo carrier to support the station’s mission and explored the Moon with an unmanned orbiter. Historically, Japan has satisfied its human space ambitions by partnering with NASA. Since that is no longer possible, Japan must now decide whether to build its own manned spacecraft. It can do so in a short time by modifying the country’s existing launch and cargo vehicles. Given the prestige factor in the Asian space race, it is a good bet that Japan will opt for starships emblazoned with the Rising Sun.

Europe. France, Germany and several other European nations pool their spaceflight programs through the European Space Agency. That organization is a major partner in the space station, with its unmanned Ariane rockets delivering cargo and providing other logistics support. By the end of this decade, the Europeans are expected to complete a module for human spaceflight and modify the Ariane cargo launcher to accommodate it. European astronauts probably will reach Earth orbit aboard ESA spacecraft by 2020.

Outsourcing our destiny
The last Space Shuttle launch will take place in 2011, leaving our nation with no independent capability to send astronauts into space.

With NASA stripped of its human spaceflight agenda, some aerospace companies are attempting to fill the gap with commercial projects. Their efforts are laudable, yet their focus is constrained by the same market forces facing any business – products must be profitable.

Commercial ventures are necessarily limited to those activities (such as space tourism) which hold out the prospect of making money. Having fun in space is not a substitute for the real exploration of, or a commanding presence in, the heavens.

Ultimately, destiny cannot be outsourced. A national decision to rely upon the private sector exclusively is a decision to follow, rather than to lead, the human space adventure.

LBJ rightfully would have decried it as a tacit decision to be “second in everything.”

Back to the future
Looking skyward from my parents’ backyard in 1957, it never occurred to me that America would retire from space before I retired from work. Listening to President Kennedy’s words, it never occurred to me that “the best of our energy and skills” would someday be packed up and stored in a Houston warehouse.

Yet the adventure is still there for the taking. As Robert Goddard, our nation’s rocket pioneer, sagely observed more than a century ago: “It is difficult to say what is impossible, for the dream of yesterday is the hope of today and the reality of tomorrow.”

America can reclaim leadership in human space exploration. To do so, we must again dream on a scale worthy of our heritage.

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Frank Thomas grew up in Pittsburgh and is now a Philadelphia lawyer, pilot and space enthusiast ([email protected]).


This article is part of Space Watch: January 2011 (Volume: 10, Issue: 1).