American Spaceflight

The United States must strengthen its space program and regain control of exploration beyond Earth, explain the authors.

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idea light bulbJuly 2014 marked the 45th anniversary of Apollo 11, humanity’s first voyage to another world. As time passes, this achievement has become more and more remarkable given that the astronauts, scientists, and engineers who carried out these missions lacked the sort of advanced computer systems we take for granted today. Fundamentally, the Apollo program represented a confidence in humanity’s ability to overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles to explore new frontiers; it also highlighted America’s central role in these achievements. The Apollo program produced a vigorous exploration plan and spurred unprecedented research, development, and science education efforts. However, in the decades since the last Moon landing in 1972, our horizons have shrunk and withered. Human spaceflight remains a core American success, but it has lost direction and, since the retirement of the space shuttle in 2011, basic capability.

Today, the United States relies on Russia to ferry astronauts to and from the International Space Station, or ISS. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration, or NASA, pays Moscow $70.7 million per astronaut for seats on the Soyuz spacecraft at a time when relations between the United States and Russia are progressively deteriorating. Moreover, a key U.S. heavy-lift rocket—which launches everything from spy and GPS satellites to planetary explorers such as the New Horizons mission to Pluto—depends on Russian-manufactured engines to deliver satellites and other payloads to orbit. Loose talk from Russian politicians about a ban on new engine exports has yet to be realized, but Gen. William L. Shelton, commander of Air Force Space Command, told Congress in July that a loss or interruption in Russian engine production “would have significant impact on our ability to reliably launch” the current schedule of national security payloads.

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