As of  sometime in 2011, there are no more American manned space launches planned.

And it’s going out with a whimper, not a bang.

Not saying this is a good or a bad thing. Just a fact.

Each of the three remaining space shuttles is on her last trip–they are headed for museums (Atlantis, Discovery, Endeavor). Columbia and Challenger disintegrated with their crews aboard. There were five in the fleet; a 40% loss.

From now on, Americans will be hitch-hiking rides to the ISS (International Space Station) aboard Russian ships. Russia is the only nation remaining with solid, regular manned launch capacity. China dabbles in it. Europe and Japan never attained it. India is supposedly planning on it.

The problem is, America has no goals in space. No goals in any system, and entropy and bean-counting sets in. “Astronauts holding their knees up and spinning around in zero-G for TV” gets boring after a while. As does their swallowing water bubbles.

Kennedy was, far and away, the greatest of the space visionaries. His “to the moon before the (60’s) decade is out” mobilized the nation in one of its two truly great “collective” adventures. The other one was World War 2.

Both were a smashing success. Our two biggest “wins” as a nation.

A great goal has to be measurable and (barely) attainable. That was Kennedy’s genius. He put a concrete (outrageous) goal together with a timeline. Much of our technology today derives from that effort (including the computing power that lets you read this).

As for the second great national adventure, we are so stuck in nostalgia that we still have a WW2-style military (tanks and carriers), 65 years after the end of that great war, looking around for something to do. And without any clear “wins” to chalk up since the Japanese surrendered on the deck of the Battleship Missouri.

Both great adventures have left us with a lot of rusting hardware. And a lack of clear direction ever since the task-completing “victories.”

But on the positive side, compare how Roosevelt reacted to Pearl Harbor to how Bush II responded to 9-11. Just a shade variation in clarity and measurability makes all the difference. Roosevelt asked congress, at the declaration of war, to picture total surrender on the part of the Empire of Japan. And less than four years later, they had the big glossy pictures of the capitulation to show in LIFE magazine.

“Fighting terrorism,” on the other hand, is not measurable, unless you make a concrete step within that battle the “tripwire” goal. Bin Laden is still at large, almost a full decade later.

We have been vision-less as a nation since Eugene Cernan took his foot off the moon (for the last time) in 1972. We haven’t even left Earth orbit since that time.

Not that our goals have to be in outer space.

But they have to be worthy of a prosperous nation of 300 million.

“Creating better jobs” or “cleaning up the environment” are great ideas, but they aren’t measurable. It won’t lead to epic “YES!” moments with sailors kissing nurses in Times Square, or every TV on earth trained on Neil Armstrong’s fuzzy image from the surface of the moon, complete with his well-meant, but semi-botched lines.

The Bible says: Without a vision, the people perish.

Back to our space program.

It is ironic, that, starting in 2011, if an American wants to get into space, he or she will have to ride atop an updated Russian R-7 booster, the same one that launched Sputnik, the first artificial satellite, in 1957.

We’ve gone redneck. Seven rusting cars in the front yard and we still need a ride to work. No Russian know-how, no Americans in space. Our astronauts are, in effect, becoming cosmonauts.

Korolev designed the iconic R-7 booster in the 50’s, and it (in continuously updated form) has remained the workhorse of the Russian space program ever since. Like the Kalashnikov rifle, once you perfect something that’s tough and it works, keep using it. High-tech doesn’t always lead to highest reliability.

Other boosters have come and gone, but the rocket that first initiated space exploration (53 years ago) is now the only one still left bringing people into space. The tortoise has overtaken the hare.

Here’s a proposal. We need something.

I believe that the United States should commit itself to starting a permanent, self-sustaining colony on Mars before this decade is out. Before 2020. It would be catchy to call it (or another vision like it) a 20/20 vision.

The reason we haven’t gone to Mars is because the technology required for a ROUND TRIP is so expensive and complex. You have to send a spacecraft to Mars which is capable of flying back to Earth (where there are no gas stations to refuel it, by the way–so you have to take propellant for the return trip with you). And then, when the astronauts return from Mars, as they did for the moon, we will have abandoned it. No one will be left up there. It’s not a conquest–it’ a drive-by.

The whole thing gets very doable if you think of ONE WAY rather than round trip. Think “Mayflower,” not Columbus.

Figure out a way to make building material out of the Martian soil. Send an unmanned supply ship (one way) every so often.

The whole point would be staying there.

As with the Mayflower, not everyone will survive. But there would be no shortage of volunteers! Who knows what great new nation could come of it?

The colonists would have to be young and of child-bearing age. They would capture the imagination of people on Earth. We would get to know them and follow their progress. Nations would compete to send them one-way care packages of things they need.

It would be good if they all had one language and one basic spiritual perspective–we don’t need to re-create the strife we have here on Earth.

They would have to find a way to produce food there (not rely on supply ships forever).

It might fail. But we could do it with current technology. Creativity would escalate in the face of problem-solving. We would even learn a lot of things about applied sustainability here on Earth by creating sustainability there.

Getting back to Earth is the problem. If you don’t have to come back, you solve a lot of these problems. Payloads increase. Equations simplify.

If not this goal, then what? What are your ideas for a worthy vision for our nation? Post them in the responses. Let’s get a good discussion going.

The truth is, America will soon cease to be a spacefaring nation. Is that what we really want?

Please pass the link to this essay on to others in the aerospace world. I’d love to hear from them. LINK to this essay >

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