The end of human spaceflight in America

Posted on Thu, 06/23/2011 - 12:56pm by Nagy, John D
Space News

The end of human spaceflight in America

In all the history of mankind there will be only one generation which will be the first to explore the solar system, one generation for which, in childhood the planets are distant and indistinct discs moving through the night, and for which in old age the planets are places, diverse new worlds in the course of exploration. There will be a time in our future history when the solar system will be explored and inhabited by men who will be looking outward toward the first trip to the stars. To them and to all who come after us, the present moment will be a pivotal instant in the history of mankind.

--Carl Sagan

On Wednesday evening Central (US) Standard Time, December 13, 1972, Astronaut Gene Cernan, commander of Apollo 17, stood in the shadow of his lunar module, Challenger, in the Taurus-Littrow valley. With Cernan was his Lunar Module Pilot and exploration partner, Astronaut Harrison "Jack" Schmitt, the only scientist ever to walk the lunar surface. They were nearing the end of their third and final EVA ("moonwalk"). One of the few things left to do was to read a plaque mounted on the LM's landing gear.  Schmitt waited for Cernan to read to the world words meant to close out Project Apollo's lunar exploration phase with something equaling Neil Armstrong's "That's one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind." It was to commemorate humanity's most outstanding achievement. Andrew Chaikin, the gifted chronicler of the Apollo program, explains in his excellent book, A Man on the Moon: The Voyages of the Apollo Astronauts that "Schmitt had not been successful in [a] hard-fought effort to change [the plaque's] wording. He had wanted something to reflect what he still firmly believed, that even if no one came back to the moon for twenty years...the return was inevitable." The words Schmitt was unable to alter, read by Cernan in Taurus-Littow, were these:

"Here man completed his first exploration of the moon, December 1972 A.D. May the spirit of peace in which we came be reflected in the lives of all mankind."

According to Chaikin,

Schmitt listened to his commander's words. Within his suit he heard the reassuring whir of cooling pumps in his backpack, a sound he had almost come to take for granted. Now Cernan was saying, "This is our commemoration that will be here until someone like us, until some of you who are out there, who are the promise of the future, come back to read it again and to further the exploration and meaning of Apollo." Schmitt's fingers were raw within his gloves. His arms ached with the exertions of a full working day on the surface. And as he listened, he realized: It's over.

Shortly after 11:40 pm, with Schmitt already inside Challenger, Cernan began climbing the LM ladder. This was the high-water mark of human exploration. The moment Cernan closed the hatch of lander's ascent stage at 11:40:56, the tide turned. America's long, slow retreat from human spaceflight had begun.

That retreat was completed on July 21, 2011. Exactly 12 days, 18 hours, 27 minutes and 56 seconds after launch, the last active space shuttle, Atlantis, deployed her main landing gear for the last time. Fifty-four seconds later, mission STS-135, America's final manned mission, ended as the shuttle's wheels stopped rolling. Shepard's Freedom 7 flight, carrying the first American into space, occurred on May 5, 1961.

Our manned spaceflight program lasted 50 years. Many of the first Americans into space lived to see it end. The program no longer has a mission. Without one, it's unlikely that the so-called "Crew Exploration Vehicle," or any other American manned spacecraft, will ever fly again. Cernan's are probably the last footprints Americans will leave on another extraterrestrial body. Schmitt was right. It was over.

It remains to be seen if Sagan, for all his brilliance and warmth, was also right. It may be that the same generation for whom the planets go from "distant and indistinct disks moving in the night" to "diverse new worlds" is also the generation that witnesses the end of space exploration. One may disagree. NASA's unmanned missions, arguably what should have been NASA's exclusive focus from the start, is happily still going strong--at least for the moment. But like other pure science programs in the United States, the political viability of unmanned space exploration is questionable. What's not questionable is the crushing disappointment felt by those of us who can point to the Apollo program as a source of inspiration to devote our lives to science.

A long-term national commitment to explore the universe is an essential investment in the future of our nation--and in our beautiful but environmentally challenged planet. An American-led program of multinational space exploration is a critical test of our intention to continue as a world leader in the twenty-first century. Only through such commitments will we inspire the youth of the coming century to step forward to preserve and protect the future of our nation and the rest of mankind. Only in this way will we develop new and difficult technologies, and make the scientific discoveries required to sustain our way of life and to make our world better. ... Our work is unfinished. My that one day soon, a new generation of Americans will find the national leadership, the spirit, and the courage to go boldly forward and complete what we started.

--Gene Kranz, NASA Flight Director (ret.)

The views expressed in this post are the author's only, and do not reflect those of Scottsdale Community College, The Maricopa Community College District or any of its employees.