Every year NASA celebrates its past glory by inducting an ever-dwindling number of American astronauts to the Hall of Fame at a glittering gala. I had the opportunity to attend the latest one on April 21, 2018 at the Kennedy Space Center, courtesy of Embraer, the Brazilian aircraft manufacturing company. I was also very fortunate to be seated next to Kent “Rommel” Rominger who has logged over 1,600 hours in space shuttle missions.

Growing up in India, in high school and in engineering college, I was captivated by the space missions of American and Soviet astronauts. I would devour  any news, any book, that I could lay my hands on, in those dark days without the internet. Alan Shepard, Yuri Gagarin, John Glenn, Valentina Tereshkova, Neil Armstrong and all the Mercury, Vostok, Gemini, Voskhod, Apollo and Soyuz astronauts were my heroes.

Imagine my excitement when I found myself sitting below that massive Saturn-V rocket and dining with these brave hearts! I was ecstatic.

But I was also sad!

NASA was once the crown jewel of America, and Florida was the proud home of this space giant. From halfway around the globe I knew of Florida only because of NASA, not because it had beaches, was home to Disney World or was a great place to live post-retirement.

Florida  was the home of the world’s premium space research agency that  enriched our lives: from the stickiest Velcro to high technology that eventually fueled the Internet. NASA helped create the demand for high technology to solve problems they faced in space, thus fueling development of new materials and processes. Development in rocket science was directly applicable in defense. And, it provided economic stimulus for Melbourne, FL  and the cities and towns around it. California and Florida were the two states in America which were identified as the home of aerospace research and technology.

Came the 1980s and they killed the space program. Beginning with the Reagan administration, all successive administrations in Washington had enough of this “white elephant” that was spending millions of taxpayer dollars to send one person in space and doing nothing for recession-hit America.

Such was, and is, the myopia of the political leadership of the right and left that they refused to continue with the funding of NASA and keep up the work it was doing to make, umm…America Great.

Disintegration of the USSR took away another incentive of keeping pace with the enemy. Immediately, the economy of the region tanked. The wise men and women making those policies didn’t realize the long term effect of this decision. Subsequently they spent a good amount of the same “saved” dollars to prop up the economy of the region. They offered incentives to bring in manufacturers to revive the economy and it did, to some extent. But they couldn’t bring the glamor, the status, the brand name it once enjoyed.

America stopped on its tracks before finishing the race. It became complacent after its nearest overseas rival folded. It didn’t see the distant rival that was catching up fast. China was already close.

It was said in the 19th and 20th centuries that whoever controlled the oceans, ruled the world. The British built an empire that the Sun didn’t set in, until they ceded the supremacy at seas to US and USSR.

In 21st century, whoever controls the space will rule the world. Does this world want to be led by values which don’t include respect for fundamental human rights? I doubt it.

Unless America converts this “stop” in space exploration to a temporary “pause” and resumes the race, it has no chance of gaining the leadership position it once enjoyed.

Wake up America!

The next time somebody tells you that he or she will make America Great, please ask a simple but pointed question: Will it be done by digging coal or sending American men and women to Mars?

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