Buzz Aldrin. Alan Shepard. Mae Jemison. Guion Bluford. Sally Ride.
These are names that most Americans of a certain age know well. They are some of the more famous members of the astronaut corps. But how many current astronauts can the average American name now? On the heels of the death of one of the country’s most famous spacefarers, Sally Ride, perhaps it is time to examine why these intrepid explorers, once so revered, have now faded into the background of American life.
There are several factors that have contributed the decline in the popularity of the astronaut corps.
1) The politicization of NASA has soured much of the public on the space agency’s mission. NASA was founded in a time of political upheaval, when the United States was in a race to orbit with the Soviet Union. The men (it was only men then) who flew into space were literally national heroes, symbols of the power and ascendancy of the United States. But now that NASA is no longer an emissary of the might and genius of the United States, the agency’s mission and budget have become targets for political games with an accompanying decline in public support for the agency and its astronauts.
2) Space flight is seen as routine. How many astronauts have there been? How many rockets have gone up and come down without a hitch? We have a permanently inhabited orbital outpost in the International Space Station. Perhaps the American public has simply become bored with what now seems to be no more exciting that an airline flight. But, the fact is that there is nothing routine about space travel. The machines that catapult men and women into Earth orbit and beyond are immensely powerful and even more complicated. The loss of shuttles Challenger and Columbia should remind us that these men and women who don pressures suits and helmets are not simply stepping onto sophisticated airliners. What they do, flying into space, is inherently dangerous. There may come a time when flying into space is routine. To use on old west analogy, astronauts are the pioneers who precede the settlers into the land, testing the environment and clearing obstacles so that the rest of us can follow in relative safety.
3) America’s sense of adventure has waned. Following on number two, Americans no longer thirst for adventure. There was a time in the nation’s history when men and women would explore for no other reason than to make the unknown known. What other reason was there to go to the moon? We are reasonably safe here on Earth, why bother with Mars? As a nation, America no longer thirsts to see beyond the horizon. As a result, those who go beyond the horizon are seen more as dreamers or (at worst) parasites on the federal budget than pioneers.
4) Americans are distracted. With all that is going on in the world, from economic troubles to terrorism to the exploits of the Kardashian family, Americans have a lot of other things to pay attention to. When mobile media puts everything at your fingertips, why pay any attention to events that are not immediately dramatic? Aside from the big tragedies like the loss of shuttles Challenger and Columbia and the minor dramas that have cropped up from time to time, spaceflight and the astronauts that support it commands little media attention. They go up, they do some experiments, and they come down.
5) NASA itself has downplayed the importance of the astronaut corps. NASA is still doing big things, but, the COTS program notwithstanding, most of their work these days centers on robotic missions. The rovers Spirit and Opportunity have been carrying out fantastic scientific work on the surface of Mars. NASA’s fleet of space telescopes have been making discoveries at an amazing pace. When was the last time there was news of a big discovery or advancement stemming from a manned mission? The last person to set foot on the moon did so in 1972. Even worse, the Apollo 17 mission was the last manned foray beyond low earth orbit.
The astronaut corps is a sector of our society that deserves to be recognized for their achievements and for their willingness to go into orbit despite the dangers. Though they have been relegated to relative obscurity by overshadowing events and cultural change, we should not forget them. And hopefully, someday soon, we will see a new generation of astronauts ignite the imaginations of American youth and adults as they, in the words of Captain Jean Luc Picard, “Boldly go where no one has gone before!”