Why America Stopped Caring About Space Exploration

By Josh Tyler | Published

Challenger setting off on a journey of space exploration

Talk to any scientist and they’ll tell you that the United States is suffering from a lack of vision. We’re not funding research and development, we’re not looking towards the future, and worst of all we’ve given up on exploration.

The US government has all but mothballed its space program. The most powerful nation in the world no longer has the means to send people into outer space without relying on a third-party commercial company owned by a billionaire. The Russians can do it, we can’t.

What happened? People stopped caring. No one minds the idea of exploration in general, but most polls show that no one is interested enough in it to let the government spend any money on it. Americans no longer really care about the space program.

When it happened, the public outcry over the end of the shuttle program was almost non-existent. Stop anyone on the street and they’ll tell you that it was fun while it lasted, but ultimately all a big waste of money. You’ll get a speech about how we should care more about what’s happening on our planet, rather than waste time thinking about the stars.

But that’s not a real reason, just a half-baked excuse. The truth about why exploration no longer matters to America is far more complex and deep rooted, and the solution lies almost entirely on how we treat the next generation of future explorers.

Challenger crew
Crew of the Space Shuttle Challenger

I was nine-years-old and watching, when the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded in the skies over Florida. It was just after lunch on a school day in Texas, and our teachers had gathered the entirety of Leon Heights Elementary School back into the cafeteria to watch the space shuttle launch. We’d done this before, the school often made a big deal out of space shuttle launches, and we’d watch them live on little rollout televisions if they happened during the school day. This one in particular was special, they told us, because a teacher just like one of them, was going up into space on this rocket powered shuttle.

Somehow that made it seem more real, to all of us. We imagined that our own teachers were just a step or two away from being launched on the next mission into space. Space was already hugely interesting to most of us. When asked what they wanted to be when they grew up, half my classmates would have almost certainly picked astronaut. That would all end, in just a few minutes.

We watched in rapt attention, hundreds of kids, as the shuttle took off and then, somewhere in that big mass of blue sky and clouds, started to smoke… and then explode. I still remember turning to the kid next to me, Dennis Demers probably, and asking if he’d seen smoke coming out the side of one of the rockets.

challenger explosion
Challenger explodes

That didn’t look right, we’d all seen enough shuttle launches to know that… and now the shuttle seemed to be gone. We agreed that something really bad had just happened and looked up at our teachers for an explanation. On their faces was a look of bewilderment, panic, and barely contained horror.

My class and all the others were quickly ushered out of the cafeteria and back to our homerooms. I don’t remember what they told us about the Challenger after that, surely they must have found some way to explain the death of all those brave souls. But what I do remember is that we never, ever, watched another shuttle launch again.

Worse, we seemed to stop talking about space exploration. Eventually most of the kids in my class changed their desired career path from astronaut to something else. A lot of them seemed to think it might be good to become fireman.

Interior of Space Shuttle Challenger

It wasn’t that we were now afraid of outer space, it was more that it somehow just slipped out of our collective, elementary school consciousness. We never talked about NASA or the space program in class anymore. The teachers had all moved on to other stuff, probably afraid they’d somehow scarred us by letting us see that doomed shuttle launch. Space no longer seemed like a viable option and, so, we all moved on.

I’ve talked to others who grew up in that era and experienced something similar. For many of the kids of that America, the kids who are now grown up and running this country, it was as though space exploration died that day on January 28, 1986 along with the Space Shuttle Challenger.

Scientists and pundits often wonder what happened to America’s interest in space exploration. What happened to the country, the nation of people, which had the vision to put a man on the moon? Bring up NASA to the average voter in modern America, and odds are the response you’ll get will involve a sneer and some offhand comment about politicians wasting our money.

spacex starship
SpaceX Rocket Launch

Anyone who grew up in the eighties knows what happened. You know because you were there, and it happened to you. America’s will to engage space exploration died that day in elementary schools across they country, as thousands upon thousands of soon to be voting age kids watched the Challenger explode while standing next to their friends, and then silently agreed they’d never care about space exploration again. They haven’t, and now America’s space program is all but dead.

Maybe that’s not a bad thing. Companies like SpaceX have stepped up to fill the void with new space vessels like Starship. They’re on track to go farther and faster than NASA would have, if they’d continued to be taken seriously.

Space exploration isn’t dead, even if NASA is.