On Thursday, if all goes to plan, the last Space Shuttle will make its last landing. It will then be grounded in every sense. There is nothing more advanced to replace it: transport to and from the International Space Station will now rely on old fashioned Russian Soyuz rockets.
The end of the Shuttle Programme leaves NASA uncertain of its future and without a clear sense of direction. This is perhaps an appropriate symbol of the United States – and the global economy in general – in 2011.
Some may not see a link between space exploration and the state of capitalism, but it has always been there. In the 1950s and 1960s, both sides saw the space race as a test of their respective economic systems. Although both relied primarily on large amounts of public money, the Americans, who lagged behind at first, won in the end because their state space agency enjoyed the competitive advantage of a network of private sector contractors and sub-contractors. The flexibility and innovation of private enterprise enables it to solve problems far more effectively than a purely bureaucratic system – and, in return, American private enterprise benefitted enormously from the commercial exploitation of a huge range of spin-off “Space Age” technologies. America’s world leadership in the invention and application of new IT would not have been sustained without the fruits of research commissioned by NASA.
Perhaps more important than the direct economic benefits of space exploration was its effect on national perception – and, as we have noted before, perception matters, because it tends to turn itself into reality. When President Kennedy challenged America to go to the moon by the end of the decade, “not because it is easy but because it is hard”, he helped Americans feel part of something dynamic and progressive. The 1960s turned out to be a decade of political turmoil, but they still retain a glamorous image as a time of technological advance.
That is what is missing in America and the West today, that feeling of being part of an age of general human improvement. Morale may be an intangible, but it is nevertheless a vital component of an enterprise culture. Great enterprises, like the Shuttle and the Moon Landing, make people feel better about their smaller enterprises. As Kennedy and his immediate successors understood, a “can do” attitude is infectious – but so is its opposite, despair.
So it is tragic that NASA has been left to drift and wither at the very time it is needed most.