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Katie Johnson: Do Americans still care about the space program?

Published 9:47pm Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Forty-one years ago Tuesday marked one of the biggest accomplishments the U.S. has ever completed. Much like Sept. 11 or when John F. Kennedy was shot, many people remember where they were when they watched the event unfold on their televisions.

Stumped? On July 20, 1969, Apollo 11 landed the first humans on the moon, propelling the U.S. ahead in the space race with the Soviet Union.

Then, it was a big deal. A really, really big deal. Children and adults alike watched in awe as astronauts Neil Armstrong and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin floated with ease in their spacesuits. The spectacle was otherworldly, a moment that etched itself in everyone’s minds.

Fast forward to today. Can you recall the last space shuttle to be launched into space? What was the last big space mission accomplishment? Can you name one astronaut currently in the space program? (No, the female astronaut who drove across the country wearing a diaper does not count.)

It’s sad, but true — the majority of Americans no longer care about the space program, at least not as much as in the past. It’s no longer watercooler talk. Space missions barely get two minutes of air time on the news networks; newspapers may run a blurb somewhere inside their national news brief sections.

President Obama has proposed cutting NASA’s Constellation Program, which had aimed to send astronauts back to the moon by 2020. NASA’s budget would increase to $19 billion in 2011  under a proposed budget released in February; however, the emphasis would be more on science and less on space exploration.

The NASA budget now constitutes 0.52 percent of the federal budget, the lowest its been since the 1950s. Funding for the space program peaked in 1966 at 5.5 percent.

In a recent Forbes story, it said that a 1961 poll showed that 65 percent of Americans approved of the goal to send people to the moon; 20 percent did not. A 2009 poll showed that 58 percent of Americans thought the space program could be justified financially — more than half of those polled were at least 10 years old when man landed on the moon.

I believe we still do care about what’s up there in the sky, but we need something new to talk about. Why are we there? What bang are we getting for our buck?

Of course, if you believe man landing on the moon was a hoax, you’ll always have something to talk about.

Katie Johnson is the managing editor of the Niles Daily Star, Off the Water, Cassopolis Vigilant and Edwardsburg Argus. She can be reached at (269) 687-7713 or at katie.johnson@

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