President Barack Obama The White House Washington DC USA
July 7th 2011
Dear Mr President,
As the countdown to your final space shuttle flight approaches, I wanted to write to thank America for the inspiration the shuttle programme has given to so many over the past 30 years.
I was three years old when construction of the space shuttle began, and 10 when Columbia, your first orbiter, was delivered to the Cape. In early April 1981 as an excited, geeky 14-year-old, I darted in and out of my school’s library making myself late for every lesson as I repeatedly checked to see if it had lifted off and really hoping it hadn’t so I’d still have a chance to witness it for myself.
Early one morning a couple of years later, I was on the first train down to Stansted Airport near London to watch your prototype space shuttle Enterprise arrive in England on the back of a jumbo jet. And a decade after that, inspired by these vivid encounters with America’s space programme, I was researching a PhD on earthquake prediction using 3D images of the Earth acquired on one of Columbia’s early flights.
The US human spaceflight programme consistently inspires the world in unexpected ways and has driven unforeseen innovations in medical, material, Earth and planetary sciences, and accelerated many of the micro-electronic technologies we avidly consume today.
But the gifts of your shuttle programme go far beyond science. Your flights with Russian cosmonauts and dockings with their Mir space station in the mid-90s forced a change in your laws to allow scientists and engineers to share technological know-how between nations, for in the field of international human spaceflight, where lives are on the line, there can be no secrets. Such collaborations propelled people from their cold war mindsets of suspicion and mistrust towards a new era of admiration and mutual respect.
The work of the shuttle fleet to build the International Space Station has continued this era of international collaboration. The ISS is a triumph of ingenuity over adversity, bringing together 16 nations on the biggest peacetime collaboration in human history. The giant, orbiting international laboratory, which they have all constructed, represents the best of what human beings can do together and has shown us the way for future international problem-solving on a planet-wide scale.
We have much to thank 30 years of the shuttle for and it will be a bittersweet moment this week as we watch the last one leave for spaceon a column of fire and smoke.
I’m sure your decision to retire such a visible and celebrated icon of American excellence from service was not an easy one. I understand your reasons. With the space station complete its work is over. And barring any major mishaps, which might render the station uninhabitable, the shuttle’s physical legacy in orbit should serve as a reminder of its unique capabilities for at least 10 more years. Passing the work of servicing and supplying it to the commercial sector will free up Nasa to explore once more. You have asked those who will remain at Nasa, following the job cuts, to plan a possible manned mission to an asteroid and maybe one day to Mars.
But something is missing from your plans. Something fundamental is lacking that could stall human space exploration for decades to come.
As America’s history shows, engineering giant leaps for mankind requires many years of unwavering political support. Landing 12 men on the moon and returning them safely to Earth took 400,000 Americans a decade to accomplish.
So far you’ve only commited two years of funding for Nasa’s latest feasibility study, with no guarantees of further financial support beyond this time.
People will tell you that Apollo happened at a unique time in world history, when bipartisan support for US human spaceflight, spurred on by the cold war, was guaranteed. They will tell you things are different today. Yet in the decades since Apollo, the shuttle and the International Space Station programmes have only been possible with cross-party political support. Such bipartisan backing has always brought great financial benefits to your nation.
As figures from the US National Science Foundation show, the inspirational effect of setting clear, long-term, government-backed space exploration goals is profound. During Apollo, through the 1960s, the numbers of PhDs being undertaken rose almost threefold, buoyed up by President Kennedy’s national challenge of reaching for the moon by the end of the decade. The space shuttle’s first flights in the 1980s had the same effect. And when America was left reeling by the Challenger andColumbia accidents, unfaltering support from Washington served to inspire more of your citizens to undertake PhDs; particularly in physics – a traditional driver of your nation’s innovation engine.
Crewed space flight is too important a field of human endeavour to play party politics with. Is it not time once more to commit as one nation with one political voice to a new exploration programme for Nasa?
Don’t let your builders of dreams drift without clear goals and a pledge of support for the decades needed to accomplish America’s next big adventure. Empower them to accomplish it today. You won’t regret it. Their talents and audacity echo around the Earth to inspire us all. The Nasa family is more valuable than you know. It will be the best dollars you ever spent and might be one of the most important acts of your presidency, not just for America, but for all mankind.