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October 24, 2014 • 10:23 am

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Leaving the Heavens Behind: What the End of the Space Shuttle Program Means for America’s Future Print
By Troy Senik
Wednesday, July 27 2011
One does not have to be a cosmological romantic, however, to lament the passing of the space shuttle. Indeed, it raises many earthbound concerns, not least in the realm of national security.

“This is the way the world ends – not with a bang but with a whimper” – T.S. Eliot, The Hollow Men
 
What Eliot said of the world we can now say of our quest to journey beyond it. Man’s early endeavors beyond his own atmosphere were nothing if not a series of bangs: the call to arms of the USSR’s Sputnik launch; the redeeming triumph of the American moon landing aboard Apollo 11; the valiant stoicism of the nearly-doomed Apollo 13, and the visceral tragedy of the Challenger disaster.
 
It was, in short, what exploration has always been: bold, dangerous, occasionally impetuous and, more than anything, illuminating – quite literally. After millennia earthbound, man found himself staring at his home planet from a cold and distant satellite for the first time with the moon landing in 1969. Yet just over 40 years later, the country that led the way in one of the greatest breakthroughs in human history left the new age of exploration behind with a whimper.
 
That faint noise issued from the landing pad at Kennedy Space Center in Florida, where the space shuttle Atlantis returned to earth in the early morning hours of July 21, never to touch the heavens again. Atlantis’s voyage to the International Space Station marked the final flight of NASA’s space shuttle program and marked a transition from an era in which the agency set out in search of worlds to explore to one in which it searched for budget line items to eliminate.
 
To be sure, many of the reasons for NASA’s decline were homegrown. Since the space agency was first established in 1958, it has held to the trend of nearly all organs in the federal government: watching its achievements decline while its payroll expanded. And in recent years, America’s manned spaceflight has generated little to inspire interest, let alone wonder.  Voyages to the International Space Station to study the effects of zero gravity on insects may be edifying for those who read the footnotes in journals of entomology, but they’re not the stuff of dreams – especially when an unexplored Mars looms in the distance.
 
One does not have to be a cosmological romantic, however, to lament the passing of the space shuttle. Indeed, it raises many earthbound concerns, not least in the realm of national security. With the shuttle grounded, America will now be dependent on the Russia of Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev for its cosmic transit. The cost of a ride for American astronauts on the Kremlin’s dilapidated Soyuz spacecraft? $63 million a pop. That’s a hefty price to pay for second-class accommodations from (at best) a fair-weather friend.
 
America’s regression in space also has dire implications when considered in contrast to China’s interstellar adventurism. As the U.S. is mothballing its hardware, China is preparing for the launch of Tiangong I, the first module of its own space station, this fall. If this mission is successful, the Chinese could have a fully operational space station in less than 10 years. 
 
Were Beijing simply joining the U.S. in a quest for greater cosmic understanding, this development would be relatively anodyne. All indications, however, point in the opposite direction. Earlier this year, Gregory Schulte, the U.S. Deputy Secretary of Defense for Space Policy, referred to China’s military ambitions for space as a “matter of concern” for the U.S. And this diagnosis isn’t strictly prospective. In 2007, China blew up a weather satellite with a ground-based missile, creating so much space junk that the International Space Station had to change its orbit last year to avoid a collision. An America shorn of its capacity for celestial self-determination is certainly incapable of rising to meet challenges such as these.
 
In the end, perhaps we can take comfort from the fact that a small but growing group of entrepreneurs are looking to make space flight into the preserve of the private sector – a group that includes such luminaries as Virgin Galactic founder Sir Richard Branson. These dynamic risk takers create the hope of something bolder than the bureaucratic morass NASA found itself unable to escape in recent years. But on certain issues unresponsive to private sector calculations of profit and loss – protecting America’s national security interests in space, exploring the galaxy for exploration’s sake and scientific understanding – it’s unlikely that they’ll step in to fill the void.
 
In those areas, we still need a governmental role in space. Yet amidst the spending orgy of the Obama Administration, NASA has been virtually the only component of the federal government asked to scale back its mission. And thus did a president who campaigned on promises of transcendence gut the one government agency that has ever offered it. Not with a bang, but with a whimper.

Question of the Week   
Voters in how many states will be asked in the November 2014 mid-term elections to accept or reject state-wide ballot measures to legalize the recreational use of marijuana?
More Questions
Quote of the Day   
 
"In an effort to keep the public calm, the CDC pretended to know more about Ebola than it actually does.First, the CDC insisted that Ebola is very difficult to transmit from person to person. But, that is clearly not true. This particular Ebola strain appears to be more infectious than others. ...Second, the CDC insisted that Ebola is not airborne. That is probably mostly true, but it may not be entirely…[more]
 
 
—Alex Berezow, RealClearScience Founding Editor and USA TODAY's Board of Contributors Member
— Alex Berezow, RealClearScience Founding Editor and USA TODAY's Board of Contributors Member
 
Liberty Poll   

Thinking only about voting procedures and requirements in your state, how much confidence do you have that voter fraud will be kept to a minimum in the 2014 midterm elections?