What Our Past Tells Us About Our Future
[excerpt from chapter 19 of The All-American Boys]

"The All-American Boys" by Walter Cunningham

When I was an active astronaut, I expected to see unmanned probes to all the planets in our solar system by 2000, and maybe even a manned visit to Mars. These accomplishments were well within our grasp. What happened?

It has been 30 years since we last visited the moon, leaving tracks, boot prints and equipment all over Taurus-Littrow and Hadley Rille. Much can happen in 30 years. 30 years after Columbus found the new world, Magellan's expedition circled the earth. Thirty years after the first successful American locomotive, there were railroad tracks all over the eastern United States.

Exploring our solar system and beyond requires more than just technology, which we have; it requires will, which we don't have. National will is expressed in funding. Where is the national will to explore? Since the glory days of Apollo, we have regularly held down funds for space exploration year after year. Funding for NASA today is one fifth what it was in 1965, less than 0.8 percent of the federal budget.

It takes a sustained national commitment for a government to carry out a program of space exploration - a commitment in which we are currently deficient. It requires leadership - not only from the President and the politicians, but the media and other organizations as well.

Our bold successes in the past elevated America in the eyes of the world. However, a faint-hearted reluctance to lead in the 21st century will change that impression. Technically sophisticated nations of the world are committed to catching up - which we should expect. While America's "cutting edge" technology is envied and exploited by other nations, the U.S. Congress subjects our commitment to one agonizing re-appraisal after another. It is hard to understand how some Congressmen are perfectly willing to throw away technological achievements for which other nations would give anything to have. I can only conclude the space program is poorly understood by political and economic leaders as well as the general public.

A passion for discovery and a sense of adventure has always driven America forward. These deeply rooted qualities spur our determination to explore new scientific frontiers and spark our can-do spirit of technological innovation. Continued leadership depends on our enduring commitment to science, to technology, to research, to learning. Such a commitment, in conjunction with accelerating technology gains, will trigger a renaissance of exploration and, in the end; it will do what exploration always does - it feeds the human spirit.

After two decades without a clear goal that excites Americans, NASA, for the most part, has slipped from the public consciousness except when disaster strikes. The people employed by NASA want to go somewhere. They look back at the journeys of Apollo with nostalgia and hope for the day when the country allows NASA once again to go somewhere.

Tasks that can be relegated safely and efficiently to robots, automated equipment, and unmanned launch vehicles should be performed in that manner. But the heart and spirit of the American space enterprise lies in the manned spaceflight program and we must use people for those activities where they have an advantage.

While space might seem to be an entirely technical domain, the most important byproducts of the space program are actually emotional ones. The program was, in fact, conceived in emotion - first for national security and then for the need to feel the thrill of beating a rival society to the moon. We have experienced many other emotions since then: joy; awe; pride; and occasionally, horror.

That's why it's hard to imagine a space program without people. We could fill up untold gigabytes with the data streams of probes, monitors and robots soaring through the heavens. But an unmanned mission, with its data collection, could never put a spring into your step or fill your heart with pride the same way John Glenn did when he returned to space, this time as a wise old man.

America is at a crossroads. Will history record that we took one step into the void, then turned and, for the longest time, retreated to home and hearth? Or that we retained our nerve, our hunger for horizons, and embraced our destiny?

Are we to maintain our technological leadership and invest in our future or do we want to mire ourselves solely in the problems of the day and squander our future? The choice is ours. We can build an International Space Station, go to Mars and invest in our future and that of our children or we can forgo our leadership in space. To me, that is no choice - let's get on with going to Mars. The future waits! It is time for another "giant leap for mankind!"

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