Speculating about counterfactuals is always dicey, but historians have long noted that, over the past 600 years, the course of human events might well have played out starkly different if China, in the 1400s, had not been so isolationist and uninterested in ocean exploration. Under an alert, imaginative, and inquisitive emperor’s vision, the Chinese might well have reached North America by ship before Columbus. And that, as they say, would have been quite a game changer.
But it was not to be.
There’s now another largely unexplored ocean out there. It’s the ocean of space. And this time it’s the West—specifically and ironically, we Americans—and not the East, which may now be caught flat-footed on dry earth. This, at any rate, is what Apollo astronaut Neil Armstrong—in a recent opinion piece for USA Today written with two other astronauts, Jim Lovell and Gene Cernan—is suggesting:
After over a half-century of remarkable progress, a coherent plan for maintaining America’s leadership in space exploration is no longer apparent.
The worried astronauts quote John F. Kennedy as saying in a speech the following:
We have a long way to go in this space race. But this is the new ocean, and I believe that the United States must sail on it and be in a position second to none.
And the astronauts conclude their essay with this:
Kennedy launched America on that new ocean. For 50 years we explored the waters to become the leader in space exploration. Today, under the announced objectives [of President Obama’s intention to shift funding away from NASA’s Constellation program], the voyage is over. John F. Kennedy would have been sorely disappointed.
Is President Obama, in not specifically promoting and fighting for greater space exploration funds, straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel?
I suppose space funding simply doesn’t poll well. Republicans, no doubt, would rake Obama over the political coals for wasting tax money if he persistantly pushed for more spending there. And that’s too bad. Our sights, as human beings, are set too low.