Space Exploration: Who cares about U.S. leadership? ATLANTIS takes off on Friday July 8, 2011, in a photo capturing flags in the foreground. Imagec courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.The era of American dominance in space exploration is about to end. The last flight of the last shuttle, Atlantis, is underway. It launched on Friday July 8, 2011, and docked at the International Space Station yesterday. When it returns to earth in less than two weeks, the US will no longer be the global leader of space exploration. Who cares? Do you?

The U.S. space effort was spurred by the surprise launch of Sputnik in 1957—the first artificial satellite to orbit the earth. Over the next 50 years, however, the US racked up a string of impressive records.

I was a teenager when NASA landed a man on the moon, and it had a huge effect on me. Some years later, I met Michael Collins at a wedding and it was like meeting a rock star. The first shuttle missions were also awe-inspiring and hit the front pages. Over time, the public seemed to lose interest except when shuttle flights ended in tragedy.

The end of the shuttle program means that we won’t have an active spaceflight program and no way of getting astronauts into space, though I suppose we could still thumb a ride with the Russians, or eventually the Chinese. Does it matter to you? Is US leadership in space essential?

A majority of Americans believe it is, according to a new poll by Pew. Almost six in ten Americans (58%) say we must stay at the forefront of space exploration. This support doesn’t vary by level of formal education. Republicans (67%) are more likely than Democrats or Independents to say leadership is essential, but majorities of all political groups say leadership is important to maintain.

How about you—do you want to see America retain its leadership in space exploration?

Has the 50-year-old space program been a good investment?

Is our tax money better spent on earth?

Originally published at, an online experiment in civil dialogue on American values.

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