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The final frontier will have to wait

by | Jul 10, 2011 | Comment, Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

I built one model as a kid. It wasn’t a boat. It wasn’t a car. It was a spaceship.

In those days, nothing could fascinate a boy like a long, tall rocket. Mine was the Apollo 11, with its huge thrusters at the bottom and, at the top, the hidden lunar module – the bug-like vehicle that would land on the moon.

I lined up all the pieces. Used ample glue. It took hours. At the very end, as the instructions indicated, I peeled back the American flag decal and stuck it on the side.

I thought about that flag and that model this weekend, as the space shuttle Atlantis, after three decades and more than 130 shuttle flights, made its final launch. After this, the U.S. space program will sit on the bench for a while, giving way to private industry or – impossible as this may sound – sharing rides with the Russians.

“Does it bother me?” shuttle commander Christopher Ferguson told CBS. “I think the transition could have taken place more gradually….

“I do think we are kind of hanging it out a little bit. But … we have our Russian partners. They’ll get us up and down. We’re paying customers.”

Paying customers?

Hitchhiking to the stars

Well, yes. As with so many other things the government once did, our space program is moving more to the private sector. You can buy a trip to the stars now. Richard Branson, the British billionaire behind Virgin Atlantic Airlines, has formed Virgin Galactic, which will charge $200,000 a seat to shoot into the heavens and experience weightlessness.

Or you can pay the Russians. That’s what our government is doing. Instead of launching a rocket from Florida, we’ll pay about $60 million a seat for our astronauts to hitch a ride to the International Space Station aboard – and I am not making this up – the Russian Soyuz.

Do we have to sit in back with the dog?

President George W. Bush put the first nail in the space shuttle coffin; President Barack Obama hammered in another – deciding Bush’s proposed alternative to the shuttle, the Constellation moon program, was too expensive. Obama has suggested a “flexible path” approach which, when you listen to it, sounds flexible enough to include going nowhere for a long time.

In short, for space fans, the fun’s over for a while.

The new impossible dream

Does this sadden you? It does me. I’m not saying every dollar we spent over the years with NASA was a great investment. But to see an American dream go the way of the highest bidder is depressing. I know private industry often does things more efficiently than government, but it also does them for one reason: profit. If there were enough money in a disco on Mars, you’d see that on the surface before a research station.

There was once a national pride in how far we Americans could go in space. We are the best dreamers on the planet, and the Gemini and Apollo programs reflected that. Over the years, the cries of “take care of life down here!” grew louder. We became jaded toward space, as movies and video games made it seem like something we could go to anytime, in HD.

But computer graphics are one thing. Launching a real rocket hundreds of miles into the sky is something else. It’s OK for a nation to take pride in that and yes, to fund it, the way governments once funded the exploration of this planet – Ferdinand Magellan, Christopher Columbus, etc.

Instead, an American kid today can build a model rocket and then proudly stick a Virgin decal on the side. Or a Russian flag. The common phrase is “reach for the stars.” But with the end of the space shuttle, it’s more like “hail a cab.”

Contact Mitch Albom: 313-223-4581 or malbom@freepress.com. The run for his new play, “Ernie,” has been extended through Aug.21 at City Theatre in downtown Detroit. It was inspired by the story of legendary Tigers broadcaster Ernie Harwell. For information, go to ernietheplay.com. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 5-7 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760). Also catch “Monday Sports Albom” 7-8 p.m. Mondays on WJR. To read his recent columns, go to freep.com/mitch.

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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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