Last July the U.S. celebrated the 40 th anniversary of the first Apollo moon landing, which remains perhaps the greatest of all human achievements. With rudimentary computers and an abundance of ingenuity and nerve, two men walked on the surface of earth's satellite and for a brief while it seemed like nothing was impossible. As astronaut Neil Armstrong said, "That's one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind."
NASA went back to the moon five more times over the next four years before the Apollo space program was eventually cancelled amid budgetary pressures and declining scientific returns. The bottom line was that the manned missions had very little that was new to teach us, as awesome as it was to watch astronauts drive around the lunar surface on dune buggies. We learned more from the recent probes that confirmed the evidence of ice in the shaded areas of the moon's craters.
Last week President Barack Obama outlined his vision and budget for America's space program and it was modest to say the least. He cancelled a proposed $100 billion return trip to the moon by the end of the decade, but reaffirmed a plan laid down by former president George W. Bush to begin exploring deeper into space.
"By the mid-2030s I believe we can send humans to orbit Mars and return them safely to Earth," said Obama. "Landing on Mars will follow and I expect to be around to see it."
Obama also announced plans to continue funding for the International Space Station through to 2020 and open the doors to civilian (e.g. privatized) companies to help service the station in the future.
Obama's plan was met with some criticism. On one hand there were the people that really wanted to see America return to the moon - not necessarily because there were any scientific reasons for going there (other than vague plans to one day launch long-range missions from a moon base), but rather to show the world that the U.S. is still the world's leader in innovation, science and technology as well as all-around daring.
On the other hand there were the usual scientists and economists that feel manned space travel is a complete waste of time, money and human lives, given the advances made by ground-based observatories, the Hubble Telescope and deep space probes. Unmanned space exploration delivers a bigger bang for the buck, even if the public is less impressed.
With the space shuttle program coming to an end after 30 years and two tragedies the U.S. manned space exploration program is at loose ends right now and is in the position where NASA will need to rent space on Russian rockets until their new Constellation rocket program is ready and private sector options become viable.