Heroes' space legacy must live on
Sunday, September 2, 2012
The following editorial appeared in the Orlando Sentinel on Tuesday, August 28:
With the death last week of Neil Armstrong, the nation has lost two of its greatest space pioneers in the past five weeks: Armstrong, the first man to set foot on the moon; and Sally Ride, the first American woman to fly in space.
It's up to America's leaders to make sure that the qualities these two giants embodied -- their leadership, their boldness, their can-do spirit, their right stuff — live on in the U.S. space program.
Armstrong captivated the nation in 1969. Fourteen years later, it was Ride's turn. Both did it with extraordinary will and courage.
Armstrong's mission was so dangerous that White House speech writer William Safire drafted a statement for President Nixon ahead of time that would laud Armstrong and fellow moon walker Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin for "laying down their lives in mankind's most noble goal: the search for truth and understanding."
In 1983, Ride put to rest doubts about women as astronauts when she flew as a crew member on the space shuttle. After two shuttle missions, she was in line for another when the Challenger exploded in 1986, killing all seven of its astronauts.
Yet both Armstrong and Ride were quiet heroes.
Armstrong never tried to exploit his fame. His family said he didn't want to overshadow the efforts of the tens of thousands of people who made his walk on another world possible.
Ride also was private. She reserved her few high-profile activities for ones that would inspire young people, particularly girls, to pursue careers in math, science and technology.
Lately, America's space agency, NASA, can boast of triumphs in unmanned exploration, such as the rover Curiosity that touched down on Mars earlier this month. But its manned program has been grounded since the final shuttle mission more than a year ago.
President Barack Obama has turned to companies to build rockets that can ferry cargo, and eventually astronauts, to low Earth orbit. Meanwhile, NASA has shifted its focus to the long-term goal of sending astronauts to more distant destinations, including asteroids and Mars.
We have cautiously endorsed this approach. But we know it will take a sustained commitment from the president and Congress for NASA to keep making progress toward goals that lie years in the future. With money so tight in Washington, D.C., the space agency could be looted without a defender in the White House.
So far, the current election campaign has left little reason to believe that either Obama or his Republican challenger, Mitt Romney, will make NASA a priority in the next four years. Looking for a mention of space on their campaign websites is like playing a kids' game: Where's Waldo?
It's ironic in a campaign supposedly centered on the economy that the two candidates haven't had more to say about space. History says a robust manned program would spur breakthroughs in science and technology that would help the United States outperform its economic rivals. And the jobs associated with space — in manufacturing, engineering and technology — are the kind of high-wage positions that both candidates are touting.
With time running out on this year's campaign, the candidates should end their radio silence on this key issue. America needs a space program worthy of heroes like Neil Armstrong and Sally Ride.