Todd R. Richman is chairman of the board of the Cradle of Aviation Museum.

 

Who turned off the moonlight for my kids?

Over the next few months, I'm taking my children on an American space adventure. Last weekend they met two genuine heroes, Fred Haise of Apollo 13 and Joe Gavin, Grumman's former president during its lunar module era. Soon they'll get to personally see one of the last space shuttle launches at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. And they'll participate in a live hookup the Cradle of Aviation Museum will establish with the International Space Station.

Then what?

President Barack Obama has announced a significant shift in American space policy by planning to abdicate U.S. governmental responsibility to launch astronauts into low orbit to the private sector. To date, no American enterprise besides NASA has succeeded in privately creating the technological infrastructure required to put one, much less multiple Americans, into orbit.

Historically, America's pursuit of space leadership has been as much about political will as it has rocket science. Not surprisingly, this shift about who launches what for America has created a schism among the astronaut corps. Apollo astronauts Neil Armstrong, Jim Lovell and Gene Cernan have sent a letter to Obama stating his plan "destines our nation to become one of second- or even third-rate stature" in aerospace ventures.

Yet Apollo 11's Buzz Aldrin believes the president is on course and that, "a near-term focus on lowering the cost of access to space and on developing key, cutting-edge technologies to take us further, faster, is just what our nation needs to maintain its position as the leader in space exploration for the rest of this century."

Long Island, which served as a technology incubator during much of the Apollo project to the moon, has much at stake in this national debate. Scattered across our region are companies that continue to be technology innovators, whose efforts can and do directly support our presence in space.

But they and others in aerospace cannot exist in a policy vacuum. Washington not only needs bold vision and leadership but a policy of consistency in putting us back into space.

Past administrations have lacked both when describing their vision for exploration and who gets us there. This may explain why we are now scrapping the space shuttle program with no alternative for getting American astronauts into low orbit other than being beholden to Russia for transport using their Soyuz rockets. That's not exactly what President John F. Kennedy envisioned when he told America in 1961, "We choose to go to the moon not because it is easy but because it is hard."

Nonetheless, Obama's plan creates new opportunities for Long Island's diverse aerospace companies. Our local aerospace executives have already demonstrated their ability to adapt to changing public policies by finding ways to stay relevant and profitable as the space program contracted and morphed after Apollo. That explains why Long Island still has one of the most diverse aerospace and defense industries in the nation.

Regardless of where the national debate takes our space program, Nassau and Suffolk county executives would be wise to convene a regional aerospace employment task force with local aerospace leaders and our congressional delegation. The group would better position Long Island to acquire and use newly directed federal funds allocated for space exploration - ensuring that, at least on a regional basis, there would be a coherent space-industry strategy. This would not only strengthen our region and prepare us for whatever is to come, but also provide many new jobs and contribute even more millions of dollars to the local economy.

Equally important, America must recognize the vast technological, economic, educational and science leadership we can secure on Earth by investing in space. My children, and yours, shouldn't view our prior space achievements with the detached interest of a walking tour through Colonial Williamsburg. What we decide now will determine whether we can use moonlight to continue to inspire our children through the creation of our collective future.