Cal  Thomas
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When Atlantis lifts off on its final mission scheduled for Friday, it will bring to an end an era of space exploration that began for the U.S. with the Soviet launch of the unmanned satellite "Sputnik 1" in 1957 and the first man to fly in space, Russia's Yuri Gagarin, on April 12, 1961.

Alan Shepard followed Gagarin into space on May 5, 1961, becoming the second person, and the first American, to fly in space and under John F. Kennedy's vision and with resolve and resources, the U.S. reached his stated goal of "landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to Earth" on July 20, 1969.

In the '60s, the place to be for a young reporter was Houston, Texas. I met many of the original seven astronauts, and the ones who followed them. NASA, Mercury, Gemini and Apollo became household names. "A-OK," "The Eagle has landed" and "throttle up" entered the lexicon.

On a commercial flight a few years ago, I sat across the aisle from John Glenn, the first American to orbit the Earth. This was when Glenn was a Democratic senator from Ohio. The in-flight movie was "Apollo 13," about the mission to the Moon, aborted because of mechanical failure.

When the film ended, several people asked Glenn for his autograph. I said, "John, you know they are not asking for your autograph because you're a senator, don't you?"

He laughed. "How well I know."

Whose autographs do we seek today when celebrity has eclipsed accomplishment?

There is disagreement between the current NASA leadership and NASA's old guard who say the failure to commit to manned space flight endangers America's dominance in space.

The Obama administration announced plans in February 2010 to cancel the "Constellation" program, the goal of which was to return Americans to the Moon, Mars and beyond. Two months later, he presented a new space policy, which he said would "increase NASA's budget by $6 billion over the next five years ... increase Earth-based observation to improve our understanding of our climate and our world ... and extend the life of the International Space Station..." As to space exploration, Nobody is more committed to manned space flight, to human exploration of space than I am," he said.

That remains to be seen. Meaningful deep-space exploration requires human participation for meaningful results. And, according to The New York Times, NASA is facing "a brain drain that threatens to undermine safety as well as the agency's plans." No more shuttles, no need for rocket scientists. "The good guys," the Times reports, "see the end coming and leave."

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Cal Thomas

Cal Thomas is co-author (with Bob Beckel) of the book, "Common Ground: How to Stop the Partisan War That is Destroying America".
 
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