The closing of the New Frontier: Obama and the death of the American space programme

“Without vision the people perish.” It is such vision that America, its people and its space programme require today from its President

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Yesterday's final flight of Space Shuttle Discovery over Washington D.C.
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Dr. James Boys
On 18 April 2012 10:21

Yesterday’s final flight of the Space Shuttle Discovery reveals the true gulf between President Obama’s campaign rhetoric and his vision for and of the United States of America.

Barack Obama campaigned as a visionary, using a high rhetorical style, the like of which had not been heard since the heady days of the 1960s and the presidential campaign of John F. Kennedy, whose siblings Obama so assiduously courted. He was anointed a Kennedyesque figure for the 21st century, but almost as soon as he was elected the rhetorical style dimmed along with his apparent vision for the United States of America.

The high rhetoric of the campaign was replaced by a dull monotone delivered from the omni-present teleprompter. The soaring exhortation of a better tomorrow was replaced by a hectoring tone and with a moral and intellectual superiority more reminiscent of Carter than Kennedy.

President Kennedy was known to quote Proverbs 29:18: “Where there is no vision the people perish.” America faces such a situation today under President Obama and this is exemplified in the state of the space programmeme.

The role of NASA in the American psyche has been essential since President Kennedy made the astronaut the hero of the New Frontier and dedicated the United States to a mission like no other: To place a man on another world. Kennedy used the Space programme as a tool in the Cold War, but also to inspire a generation of Americans to greatness. “We chose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard,” he told an audience at Rice University.

The successful accomplishment of that mission was the culmination of a dream, a political struggle and the dedication of millions of man-hours by the hard working people on Florida’s Space Coast and at installations across the nation. It epitomised the American ‘can-do’ attitude that had seen the nation grow and become the most powerful in the world in such a short period of time. In retrospect, however, it was perhaps the apex of the American century.

With the 1970s came the decision by the Nixon administration to initiate the Shuttle programmeme, designed to make space travel more business-like, utilising a reusable vessel capable of delivering a payload and then returning safely to earth. To a new generation, the Space Shuttle became the epitome of the United States in the 1980s as it soared majestically into the clear blue skies over the Kennedy Space Centre, taking the United States into space and making such missions seem routine.

But the launches never lost the ability to strike awe into all who witnessed them. There was something in the power, the majesty, the danger and the romance of the space mission that drew all in homage. It was a thrilling, exciting and dangerous exercise, which continued the original quest that Kennedy had inspired.

Politicians of all parties were happy to revel in the reflected glory of the space mission and the recognition that it separated the United States from all other nations. It was an extension of Manifest Destiny and the epitome of American Exceptionalism in the third millennium. Even President George W. Bush announced plans to send a manned mission to Mars to continue the ongoing American mission to take mankind beyond the confines of its home planet.

The President of the United States has now terminated the shuttle programme and cancelled the manned mission to Mars. At a stroke he has announced America’s abdication of space at precisely the moment when America’s competitors appear capable of assuming a foothold in that vital region. To do so is folly and gives credence to those who claim that this president fails to recognise the exceptionalism of the United States. His actions add fuel to those who wish to talk and write endlessly of an inevitable American decline.

NASA’s Space Centre in Florida, for all the romance associated with it, has become a sad reflection of its heyday; it’s facilities yearn for a new mission to once again inspire the world with American ingenuity. Newt Gingrich recently spoke of developing a Moon base if elected president, a sentiment that received mockery around the world. However, whilst it is clear that ‘Moonbase Gingrich’ is about as likely as a Gingrich Administration, at least the former Speaker was offering a vision of a return to the glory days of America’s space mission. The present occupant of the Oval Office offers no such vision and as a result the very rationale for NASA may perish.

The world’s media covered the final flight of the Discovery but they appeared to miss the point. This was not a flight of fantasy, but rather a one-way trip to become a museum piece, to be starred at by children, too young to recall its magic and majesty, and mourned by those who could. It will be placed in a mausoleum by a president who campaigned as a visionary and appears capable only of presiding over the diminution of the United States; a president who appears not to appreciate the power of imagination and ideas that helped propel the American people from sea to shining sea and then out into the stars.

The final flight of the Discovery across the skies above Washington DC yesterday resembled the sad, lonely flight of Air Force One on November 25, 1963, as it flew low over the nation’s capital, crossed the Potomac and dipped its wings in final salute to the memory of the man who had inspired the moon mission and whose body was at that very moment being lowered into the ground at Arlington National Cemetery.

“Without vision the people perish.” It is such vision that America, its people and its space programme require today from its President.

Dr. James D. Boys is a Contributing Editor to The Commentator and an Associate Professor of International Political Studies at Richmond, the American International University in London. Visit his website www.jamesdboys.com and follow him on twitter @jamesdboys

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