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John Metzler Archive
Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Man in Space 1961-2011:
Does America still have the ‘Right Stuff’?

UNITED NATIONS — Lost among the surge in media stories covering earth-shattering events from the Arab Spring in the Middle East, to the earthquake/Tsunami hitting Japan, to the terrible floods sweeping parts of the USA, there’s the almost forgotten commemoration of an event, really a saga, which changed the world.


U.S. astronaut Alan Shepard.

Manned space flight began fifty years ago this Spring. On 12 April 1961, Soviet Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin was the first man to fly into outer space. Shortly thereafter, Astronaut Alan Shepard lifted off in a Mercury Redstone Rocket the morning of 5 May 1961 to become the first American in space.

Contrary to popular lore and legend, Alan Shepard, a New Hampshire native, was first to fly into orbit before the more high-profile mission by John Glenn almost a year later.

Also In This Edition

As a way to politically decompress from a high stress and pressurized news cycle, I visited New York’s Bonhams Auction Gallery to view a fascinating selection of American and Soviet Space related material relating to the Project Mercury and Vostok programs, Project Gemini, and Apollo 11, the flight which first brought Americans to the Moon.

A plethora of orbital photography, signed crew photos, trajectory charts and maps, and NASA memorabilia graced the small but focused presentation, brought the writer back to the halcyon days of space travel, from the 1960’s Space Race with the Russians to the 1970’s space cooperation with the Soviets.

Names like Scott Carpenter, Gordon Cooper, Wally Schirra came back to memory along with the more familiar Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins, Pete Conrad, and Buzz Aldrin.

Other Skylab, Apollo-Soyuz and Mir artifacts recalled the extraterrestrial détente between the USA and the Soviet Union in the 1970’s. An actual spacesuit from Cosmonaut Alexi Leonov was on display as well as a number of old Soviet propaganda posters extolling “Glory to Cosmonaut Gagarin” and one 1959 poster extolling the success of Sputnik and vaingloriously proclaiming the USSR as the New “Tenth Planet.”

Weeks earlier at the UN, a photo exhibit by the Russian Federation and the Russian Federal Space Agency (Roscosmos) put forth a more political presentation of the Yuri Gagarin anniversary, illustrating the first manned flight, and underscoring the role of the former USSR as a scientific leader.

But beyond the politics of the space race, what have we mortals gained on the practical level from space technology?

Amazingly a few generations have now grown up without realizing the direct cause and effect between the space program and current, affordable and off the shelf technology. The miniaturization of circuits and electronics in general and the original breakthroughs in computer technology are but a few.

Affordable high-tech ranging from the computer you are using to your cell phone are among others. Less obvious are advances in medicine and aircraft metal standards and safety.

Now after two final missions by the Shuttle Endeavor and later Atlantis, the U.S. Space Shuttle program will be shutdown ending thirty years of manned flight. The Obama Administration moreover has cancelled the follow-up program to the Shuttle, Project Constellation, and thus effectively takes the USA out of the running when it comes to manned space exploration.

According to Congressman Pete Olsen of Texas, “The Administration’s Fiscal Year 2011 budget will shut down America’s ability to continue human space flight by killing the Constellation program within NASA. Constellation is the best option to get to the Moon and beyond.” The Constellation program already has seen $9 billion in funding; now the Administration is using $2.5 billion to kill the project. The Texas Republican continued, “If the United States abandons human space flight, we are, without question, placing America in the second tier at most with other nations.”

Neither Russia nor the People’s Republic of China harbor such hesitations to push the scientific frontiers of outer space. Indeed Moscow’s “Roscosmos” has been an active player in partnering with foreign countries as to serve as the key conduit to the cosmos.

Why then is the Obama Administration phasing out significant parts of the manned spaceflight program, cutting thousands of jobs, losing our scientific edge, and not playing for the long term in pushing the scientific and exploration envelope?

Is modern America losing the Right Stuff?

John J. Metzler is a U.N. correspondent covering diplomatic and defense issues. He writes weekly for

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