“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

  • George Santayana (1863–1952), U.S. philosopher, Life of Reason, ‘Reason in Common Sense’

Friday’s front page Washington Post (3/7/08) story, “NASA Wary of Relying on Russia” should have been titled, “What Happens When You Put Your Eggs in One Basket.” With the Space Shuttle era soon coming to an end and NASA transitioning to another launch system (Constellation), the US will be dependent on our former Communist rival to allow us access the International Space Station and any other place we might want to go in low-Earth orbit for several years.

I’m sure to many readers of this article, this realization came as an utter shock but to anyone who has watched America’s space program over the past 20 years, this is the hole we have dug ourselves into and are going to have one helluva time getting ourselves out. Decades of poor decision making, fickle attitudes and investments in new technologies, a lack of national will, limited resources and reinforcement of legacy systems and behaviors all blend together to leave us parked on the launch pad for years after the last Shuttle mission safely lands. That’s a lousy to place to be after spending billions of dollars on an orbiting laboratory that American taxpayers have essentially already paid for

The embarrassing irony of this situation should not be lost on anyone. The winner of the race to the Moon, the beacon of capitalism and technology leadership, the first nation to place its flag into another sphere’s soil is now left with nothing more than a checkbook to access the heavens when it comes to human spaceflight. The nation that once showed how it could quickly transition from the Redstone to the Atlas rockets for the Mercury Program, the Titan for the Gemini Program and the Saturn rockets of the Apollo age – all within an expanse of 5-6 years is now left with an empty cupboard of options.

This is not the first time we have been left without options. When the last Apollo craft splashed down in 1975 (after its historic link up with the Soviet Soyuz spacecraft), the US went nearly six years without an American astronaut in space until the dawn of the Shuttle era in April 1981 .

When the US made the decision to pursue the Space Shuttle option in the early 1970’s, it seemed to be a bold, innovative but fairly secure promise. There was no reason to believe it could not succeed. We had just completed several missions to the Moon, handily beating the Soviets in the closing stretches and US space power was at the top of its game. How could we screw this up?

Nonetheless, time and history have proven that the Space Shuttle has never lived up to the promises and potential it was supposed to fulfill. Despite the Shuttle’s notable record of achievement in its more than 25 years of flight, the fact remains that we put all of our eggs into one basket and cast away all other options we could have and should have pursued. As a result, hubris, bureaucracy and complacency took root, and the American space program has never been the same.

As we prepare to enter our next lull period of American human spaceflight launch dormancy (which was once dominancy), the emerging generation of leaders at NASA, and members of the larger aerospace research and industry community members should look to the enticements and efforts such as those of the X Prize and the commercial launch opportunities that reward entrepreneurship and risk toleration and have even been used by the former Soviet Union and others outside the official US space program. Somewhere along the way after the Moon landings we as a nation lost those capacities and have failed to recapture them since.

Competition with the Soviets is what made a very young NASA grow up real fast and get busy crafting the people, skills, technologies and tools to get us to the Moon and back. I can easily argue that the rise of the Chinese Space Program should spur NASA and America to shake off the rust and get back in ‘the game.’ There are certainly a number of other reasons to begin moving faster in this arena as well but if anyone is going to lead that fight and cause that rust and complacency to fall away, it is going to be people who are going to challenge the existing status quo and “business as usual” approach which has gotten us into our present hole.

Now the nation which took one giant leap for mankind will have to outsource a capacity and capability we once elevated to a higher order of magnitude; watch and cheer liftoffs from our living rooms and computers screens instead of from viewing stands along our coastlines and hope the new launch capability basket we are filling with our new eggs doesn’t result in launch dormancy for a third time.

For space enthusiasts, one of the saddest sights and sounds is an empty and dormant launch pad and shuttered and quiet mission control center. For the second time in the life of this space-faring nation, we are about to play host to both again. It is my sincere hope that we will remember the lessons learned during previous times spent on the sidelines of human spaceflight and not be condemned to repeat them again…

Rich Cooper blogs primarily on emergency preparedness and response, management issues related to the Department of Homeland Security, and the private sector’s role in homeland security. Read More