The recent decision by President Obama to cancel NASA's plans to return astronauts to the Moon and eventually send an expedition to Mars is a great disappointment and a serious mistake on the part of the President. While Project Constellation was certainly not without its problems, a vastly better course of action would have been to adapt and adjust the program to ensure success, not scrap it entirely (especially since the federal government has already spent several billion dollars on it). The cancellation of Project Constellation leaves the American space program with no real direction, and this is a recipe for disaster.
In 1961, President Kennedy gave the newly-established NASA a clear and specific mission: successfully send a manned mission to the Moon by the end of the decade. Against all odds, it succeeded, with Neil Armstrong planting the American flag on the Moon in 1969. It was one of the greatest achievements in world history.
Jefferson would have been delighted by the Apollo Program, and the bold spirit that NASA exhibited back in its glory days. He was always a firm supporter of exploration, as both a private citizen and as a public servant. Seeing a clear national interest, Jefferson didn't hesitate to use taxpayer money to fund the Lewis and Clark Expedition, not the mention the explorations of Zebulon Pike and many others. The pioneers of eventually settled the American West had had their trails blazed for them by these bold explorers.
Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were, in a very real sense, the true descendants of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark. But unlike the exploration of the American West, the American space program has stalled and become mired in inefficiency and unproductive activity. Rather than continue to blaze a trail for future settlers, most of NASA's work has become needless waste of taxpayer dollars.
Even as the American flag was being planted on the Moon, NASA had drawn up ambitious plans to establish a permanent outpost on our lunar neighbor by 1978 and send a manned expedition to Mars by 1981. Shortly thereafter, however, President Nixon cancelled all these plans. Had NASA been allowed to go forward, we might today be well into the process of harvesting the vast resources of the Solar System to improve life on Earth in unimaginable ways.
In the years after the last Apollo mission to the Moon in 1972, the American manned space program has had no definable goals, seemingly existing merely to perpetuate its own existence. We have built and flown the Space Shuttle for the past thirty years, but it does little that cannot be done by expendable rockets and its poor safety record has lead to the deaths of 14 brave astronauts. Ostensibly, the Space Shuttle was created in order to build the International Space Station, but no one can seem to articulate what the ISS is actually for. In truth, we built ruinously expensive Space Shuttles in order to build a ruinously expensive Space Station, which goes nowhere and does nothing.
The utter failure of the manned spaceflight program since Apollo has been somewhat alleviated by the tremendous success NASA has had with its unmanned exploratory missions around the Solar System. All Americans should be tremendously proud of the Voyager missions to the Outer Solar System, the Viking and Mars Exploration Rover missions that landed on Mars, the Galileo mission to Jupiter, the Cassini mission to Saturn, the Magellan mission to Venus, and many other such projects that have unlocked great scientific secrets and advanced the collective knowledge of humanity. Thomas Jefferson would have been overjoyed by these achievements.
In January of 2004, not quite a year after the tragic loss of the Space Shuttle Columbia with its seven-man crew, then-President George W. Bush announced a new policy for NASA, aiming at the return of astronauts to the Moon and eventually sending an expedition to Mars. It was an ambitious goal, and one of the few major initiatives of the Bush Administration of which Jefferson would have approved. But despite some progress, including the design of a new manned spacecraft called the Orion, the plan had run into numerous roadblocks, most specifically technical issues involving the Ares rockets and the massive budgetary pressures that characterize our times. The decision by the Obama administration to cancel the program may be a disappointment, but it is not a surprise.
So now we are left with a manned spaceflight program with no clear direction or goal. A space program without a clear direction is worse than no space program at all, since it wastes great amounts of taxpayer money for no gain.
21st Century Jeffersonians should strongly support space exploration, for the same reason we would have supported the exploration of the American West in Jefferson's time. It's where the future hopes of humanity lie, and the reopening of the frontier spirit will reawaken many of the Jeffersonian impulses among the people, who have slumbered for too long.
Being fully conscious of our nation's precarious fiscal situation, we should push our government to move forward with a common sense, cost effective manned spaceflight program, whose long-range goal should be the establishment of a permanent human presence on the Moon and Mars and, eventually, throughout the Solar System. While the pioneers of the future will not travel in covered wagons, they will be as Jeffersonian as their spiritual ancestors, and we should be laying the groundwork for them now.
As Jefferson said of the Western explorations he did so much to make happen, "The work we are now doing is, I hope, done for posterity. We shall delineate with correctness the great arteries of this nation. Those who come after us will fill up the canvas we began."