Time for a new, ambitious goal in space

Forty years ago this month, U.S. explorers reached and walked on the moon. This week, Apollo 11 moon mission astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins met with President Barack Obama at the White House. Obama had words of praise and honor, but he remained noncommittal about space prospects after the shuttle program ends next year.

NASA needs enthusiasm — from the president and the public — to recapture the excitement and promise of space exploration in the 1960s. Back then, when President John F. Kennedy dropped a medal at an awards ceremony for U.S. astronauts, he retrieved it and smoothly recovered with the remark, "From the ground up." That’s the level of support it will take.

Last week’s death of CBS icon Walter Cronkite adds poignancy to the moon walk anniversary. The uniquely influential television news anchor was famous for his dispassionate delivery of the day’s events. Regarding our space program, however, his boyish enthusiasm was always obvious and almost universally shared by the public.

The Cold War initially spurred space exploration. Four years ago in August, a Russian rocket based in Kazakhstan successfully launched an American satellite. The two-ton Galaxy 14 satellite was built by Orbital Sciences Corp. for PanAmSat Holding Corp. to deliver high-definition cable television programming.

Meanwhile, little land rovers Opportunity and Spirit have chugged for years over the surface of Mars, transmitting over 250,000 images and 36 gigabytes of data. Occasional stalls do not detract from the phenomenal accomplishments of these and other robot probes of the planets and wider space.

President George W. Bush made some effort to make space flight a higher national priority, to include a manned mission to Mars. During his first term, NASA was directed to plan for Mars. That initiative, however, received neither much public notice nor sustained emphasis from the White House.

Space flight generates far less public excitement than in JFK’s time, in part because we are collectively much more cautious. That attitude is well represented by the constant concern over safety of the shuttle flights.

Nevertheless, NASA is looking beyond routine shuttle missions to more adventurous space efforts, and this should be supported for several reasons.

First, while the initial space program was fueled by Cold War fixations and fears, this one could be defined by global cooperation.

Science has always held an olive branch. During the height of the Cold War, President Eisenhower fostered scientific exchange from both sides of the Iron Curtain. This time around, Sino-American relations could be furthered by cooperation to get to Mars. For example, Wisconsin’s Merit Models Co. and Carthage College Professor Douglas Arion have developed an inexpensive small telescope manufactured in China. The project is recognized by the current UN International Year of Astronomy marking the 400th anniversary of Galileo’s discoveries.

Second, space exploration has driven practical technological advances. Economically useful products have resulted from extreme miniaturization of components. Most dramatically, the personal computer was facilitated in part by the moon program requirements.

Third, the Obama administration’s greatly expanded public spending is heavily domestic in nature, driven by economic fears in the current severe recession and more personal fears of an aging population facing expensive and often inefficient health care delivery.

The range and diversity of an expanded space program could combine further economic stimulus with needed recovery of national confidence, plus greater global cooperation. We should go for it.

(Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College and author of ‘After the Cold War’)