There is a certain sense of unreality as I sit this morning at the Kennedy Space Center press site, with Atlantis on the launch pad just over three miles away awaiting its last mission (STS 135), NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver finishing a briefing on NASA's ambitious plans for the future, a hundred enthusiastic young people from all over the country gathered for a "Tweetup" to communicate their impressions of being at a launch—while in Washington, D.C., the House Appropriations Committee apparently is intending today to cut almost $2 billion from NASA's budget. There is a remarkable disconnect between the excitement surrounding the last shuttle launch, set to lift-off Friday, and the pervasive and merited anxiety about NASA's future that is almost the first thing out of the mouths of any of the space veterans I have encountered in the past 24 hours.

I commented to a reporter earlier today that the current level of uncertainty about the future of the NASA program is the greatest that I have seen in 45 years of close observation of the U.S. space program. The closest parallel was the 1970-1971 period when the Nixon White House rejected NASA's very ambitious post-Apollo plans and the agency struggled to invent a new rationale for the only possible major new program, the space shuttle. We have lived with the outcome of that period for 40 years now—a space shuttle design with inherent design risks and very high costs. That design was chosen primarily to give the NASA human spaceflight workforce a challenging new project to keep it well-employed and to communicate to voters in the 1972 presidential election that the Nixon White House, not as part of a long-term vision of what the United States would be doing in space. Whereas the shuttle is a remarkable vehicle, it has also been an obstacle to progress in space given its costs and the fact that NASA has had to operate it for more years than planned in order to complete assembly of the International Space Station.

I worry that we are today in danger of approving the next major development in space—the design of a heavy-lift launch vehicle—on equally short-term considerations of maintaining jobs (advocates of course would call it maintaining essential capabilities) and electoral politics. There seems no agreement on what future missions the U.S., and presumably some set of international partners, will undertake after 2020, yet designing a vehicle without such agreement and designing it based on existing capabilities rather than 21st-century technologies seems the path that Congress is forcing NASA to follow. Although the House budget cuts would gut NASA's technology and commercial crew efforts, the budget for the new launch system is actually increased. This seems to me to reverse the sensible priorities that should be guiding this country's space spending.

So it is a bit hard for me to share in the excitement surrounding the STS 135 mission. For sure it is the end of one era in the U.S. space program. I only wish it were also a clear time of transition to a new and productive space future.

About the Author: Dr. Logsdon is Professor Emeritus of Political Science and International Affairs at George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs. Prior to his leaving active faculty status in June 2008, he was on the faculty of the George Washington University for 38 years; before that he taught at the Catholic University of America for four years. He was the founder in 1987 and long-time Director of GW’s Space Policy Institute. From 1983-2001, he was also Director of the School’s Center for International Science and Technology Policy. He is also a faculty member of the International Space University. During the 2007-2008 academic year, he was a Distinguished Visiting Professor at MIT’s Science, Technology and Society Program on a part-time basis. During 2008-2009, he held the Charles A. Lindbergh Chair in Aerospace History at the Smithsonian Institution National Air and Space Museum. He holds a B.S. in Physics from Xavier University (1960) and a Ph.D. in Political Science from New York University (1970).

Dr. Logsdon’s research interests focus on the policy and historical aspects of U.S. and international space activities. His book John F. Kennedy and the Race to the Moon was published in December 2010.Dr. Logsdon is also the author of The Decision to Go to the Moon: Project Apollo and the National Interest (1970) and is general editor of the eight-volume series Exploring the Unknown: Selected Documents in the History of the U.S. Civil Space Program. He has written numerous articles and reports on space policy and history, and authored the basic article on “space exploration” for the most recent edition of Encyclopedia Britannica. Dr. Logsdon has lectured and spoken to a wide variety of audiences at professional meetings, colleges and universities, international conferences, and other settings, and has testified before Congress on several occasions. He has served as a consultant to many public and private organizations. He is frequently consulted by the electronic and print media for his views on space issues.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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