China announced Dec. 14 that it had done what the United States has not done in more than 40 years: Land a probe on the moon. The Chang'e 3 spacecraft is the third in a series of Chinese robot probes that are expected to set the stage for a possible manned landing after 2020.
China's push for the moon comes as the U.S. manned space program limps along in its third year without a vehicle to put humans into space, following the retirement of the last Space Shuttle in 2011. Though American astronauts continue to fly aboard the International Space Station, they depend on Russian rockets to get them there and will continue to do so through at least 2015, at a cost of $70 million a seat.
This is President Obama's space exploration legacy to future generations. The president who promised to "restore science to its rightful place" after he and his fellow Democrats spent years deriding Republicans for allegedly being "anti-science" has reduced NASA's manned space program to a shadow of its former glory. And he's done it just as the Chinese are cranking theirs into high gear.
Instead of inspirational stories of space exploits like those of Neil Armstrong stepping on the lunar surface for the first time, or John Glenn orbiting the Earth in the Space Shuttle more than 35 years after becoming the first American to do so in a Mercury capsule, Americans now hear misguided (and taxpayer-funded) global warming advocacy from James Hansen, longtime director of the Goddard Institute for Space Studies. Several of Hansen's fellow scientists, including his former boss, have accused him of pushing bad data or faulty conclusions into the climate debate.
All the while, Obama administration officials have insisted that "the future of space is happening right now and it is being built right here in America," as NASA Administrator Charles Bolden and White House science adviser John Hendren wrote in 2012.
But a whole host of experts disagree. Armstrong, along with fellow Apollo astronauts James Lovell and Eugene Cernan, said in 2010 that Obama's abandonment of manned space launch systems "destines our nation to become one of second- or even third-rate stature. ... Without the skill and experience that actual spacecraft operation provides, the U.S. is far too likely to be on a long downhill slide to mediocrity."
A National Research Council report in 2012 found a lack of strategic direction at the agency that threatened all its various missions, not just manned spaceflight. Even if China were not aiming for the moon, or Russia not charging top dollar for giving U.S. astronauts rides, manned space exploration is an important driver of economic growth, a key element in the promotion of scientific research and science education and a source of national pride that stretches the limits of the human experience.
Obama talks a good story on NASA but his space record is less than wafer thin. Perhaps he thinks it's possible to "lead from behind" in space, but all he is doing is ensuring that America — the first nation on the moon — is left behind in space.