A workmate made the following comment during a conversation lamenting the loss of the space shuttle:
“A clear indication of the decline of the US as a superpower was its decision to cut space expenditure and not create a shuttle replacement. Superpowers like to be ahead of everyone and this is a clear indication that they’re willing to hand the reins over to someone else like China, Russia or potentially India in the years to come“
The US still sees itself as a superpower. The space race, however, was over in 1991 when the Eastern Bloc collapsed. The space race was just that – a race between the US and USSR to take charge of space for nuclear reasons and to improve missile technology under the cloak of “spacecraft development”. Even the shuttle was designed as a vehicle for getting military equipment into space. Why do you think the cargo bay is missile shaped? It’s not the most efficient of designs, after all… And why do you think the early crews were primarily made up of US military personnel, even though NASA is theoretically a pseudo-civilian organisation? Hubble space telescope. “It’s for looking out at the stars”. Hmm. Yes, fair enough, but how much can you see if you turn it the other way and look at Earth??” Have a look at the specs for the focusing mechanism. If it can be calibrated to focus on the surface of Earth at high magnification then you know I’m right… 😉
Once the USSR fell and the cold war ended the space race was pretty much over. NASA had to try and find some reasons to justify its existence and science was the answer. Budgets fell and funding dropped because the main reason for NASA’s existence was gone, and the military had no real need to go into space any more. The whole Apollo program was a big propaganda exercise to demonstrate US superiority over the USSR and get there first to repair the damage done by the Soviets getting Gagarin into space first. The ISS was the last big drive to raise public, scientific and commercial interest in space travel and to get injections of cash and interest by other nations. It didn’t really do all that well, as it took too long to do and highlighted the HUGE maintenance costs and time lost with the shuttle due to the need to refurbish it after a mission as tragically highlighted by Columbia. Of course, on that note, the loss of Columbia was the last nail in the coffin – the time spent investigating and then improving the safety aspects was a financial disaster and showed that the Russian template (space on the cheap, basically) was working better than the US system and with less human sacrifice. The Russians could, if I remember correctly, launch two Soyuz missions during the same time it took to prep and launch one shuttle mission and at less cost. So the space race was lost by that point anyway.
I think Obama was the first to really act on what everyone knew anyway – the shuttle (and NASA to an extent) was a drain on resource for very little gain. And yes, it hurts to say that: just the same as it hurts to admit that the SR-71 was justified in its retirement as a badly-designed (using up an entire load of its “unique” fuel just for take-off???) and expensive beast. The ISS I think was a PR move and Obama used that to strengthen the drive to cancel the majority of “flogging a dead horse” projects NASA wanted funding for. No matter that a percentage of the population and the workforce were behind the space program, the support from the majority of the population was very low. Interest in space has waned significantly since the cold war ended as focus on other, earthly problems have taken the fore. Many people now think that $200m can be better spent improving domestic quality of life than on firing a tin can full of science toys out of the atmosphere. And again it hurts to say that.
The US don’t need to be technologically ahead of anyone any more. They think they are morally above everyone and that’s all they need to be satisfied.