WASHINGTON — As the space shuttle Discovery flew three times around Washington, a final salute before landing at Dulles airport for retirement in a museum, thousands on the ground gazed upward with marvel and pride. Yet what they were witnessing, for all its elegance, was a funeral march.
The shuttle was being carried — its pallbearer, a 747 — because it cannot fly, nor will it ever again. It was being sent for interment. Above ground, to be sure. But just as surely embalmed as Lenin in Red Square.
Is there a better symbol of willed American decline? The pity is not Discovery's retirement — beautiful as it was, the shuttle proved too expensive and risky to operate — but that it died without a successor. The planned follow-on — the Constellation rocket-capsule program to take humans back into orbit and from there to the moon — was suddenly canceled in 2010. And with that, control of manned spaceflight was gratuitously ceded to Russia and China.
Russia went for the cash, doubling its price for carrying an astronaut into orbit to $55.8 million. (Return included. Thank you, Boris.)
China goes for the glory. Having already mastered launch and rendezvous, the Chinese plan to land on the moon by 2025. They understand well the value of symbols. And nothing could better symbolize China overtaking America than its taking our place on the moon, walking over footprints first laid down, then casually abandoned, by us.
Who cares, you say? What is national greatness, scientific prestige or inspiring the young — legacies of NASA — when we are in economic distress? Okay. But if we're talking jobs and growth, science and technology, R&D and innovation — what President Barack Obama insists are the keys to "an economy built to last" — why on earth cancel an incomparably sophisticated, uniquely American technological enterprise?
We lament the decline of American manufacturing, yet we stop production of the most complex machine ever made by man — and cancel the successor meant to return us to orbit. The result? Abolition of thousands of the most highly advanced aerospace jobs anywhere — its workforce abruptly unemployed and drifting away from space flight, never to be reconstituted.
Well, you say, we can't afford all that in a time of massive deficits.
There are always excuses for putting off strenuous national endeavors: deficits, joblessness, poverty, whatever. But they shall always be with us. We've had exactly five balanced budgets since Alan Shepard rode Freedom 7 in 1961. If we had put off space exploration until these earthbound social and economic conundrums were solved, our rocketry would be about where North Korea's is today.
Moreover, today's deficits are not inevitable, nor even structural. They are partly the result of the 2008 financial panic and recession. Those are over now. The rest is the result of a massive three-year expansion of federal spending.
But there is no reason the federal government has to keep spending 24 percent of GDP. The historical postwar average is just over 20 percent — and those budgets sustained a robust manned space program.
NASA will tell you that it's got a new program to go way beyond low-Earth orbit and, as per Obama's instructions, land on an asteroid by the mid 2020s. Considering that Constellation did not even last five years between birth and cancellation, don't hold your breath for the asteroid landing.
Nor for the private sector to get us back into orbit, as Obama assumes it will. True, hauling MREs up and trash back down could be done by private vehicles. But manned flight is infinitely more complex and risky, requiring massive redundancy and inevitably larger expenditures. Can private entities really handle that? And within the next lost decade or two?
Neil Armstrong, James Lovell and Gene Cernan are deeply skeptical. In a 2010 open letter, they called Obama's cancellation of Constellation a "devastating" decision that "destines our nation to become one of second or even third rate stature."
Which is why museum visits to the embalmed Discovery will be sad indeed. America rarely retreats from a new frontier. Yet today we can't even do what John Glenn did in 1962, let alone fly a circa-1980 shuttle.
At least Discovery won't suffer the fate of the Temeraire, the British warship tenderly rendered in Turner's famous painting The Fighting Temeraire tugged to her last Berth to be broken up, 1838. Too beautiful for the scrap heap, Discovery will lie intact, a magnificent and melancholy rebuke to constricted horizons.
© 2012 Washington Post Writers Group