As a neophyte science fiction writer, I find myself daydreaming about the different ways we will reach the planets and then the stars with some regularity. For most Americans, from our President on down, space exploration seems like an afterthought, of much less technological interest than the latest iWhatever, of much less cultural significance than Jersey Shore. Thus the announcement that we're essentially warehousing human exploration of space.
The political response to this from some quarters of the conservative movement is that Obama is taking a step away from American Greatness. However, he isn't doing anything more than reflecting our apathy about space exploration in his budgeting decisions. As this article by Craig Nelson notes, George W. Bush's announcement of a mission to Mars was just a bit of political fluff, and almost no one is willing to extend themselves to push for publicly-funded space flight the way JFK did in the early sixties.
So, while the Russians now have a seeming monopoly in sending people into space, we have to ask ourselves what the future holds. Are we destined to stay turned inwards, extending our lifespans and cushioning ourselves in conveniences and amusements while the rest of the galaxy remains a mystery? Obama has cited the possibility of private enterprise taking up some of the slack for NASA. But until the corporate world finds ways to make money in space, that's not going to happen.
Ultimately, I think the lack of interest in reaching space is cultural. First, we have become an incredibly risk-averse species. Most of our political debates now are about how to ensure there is ever-less risk of bad things happening to people. That attitude does not mesh well with the notion of sending many of our best and brightest into situations where they well may die (and die with TV cameras on them, which makes it that much more politically difficult). Secondly, we have lost the idea of the frontier, that great things can happen if you're willing to leave your stagnant past behind and take a leap into the unknown. It has, I'd argue, been replaced by the notion of moving as a lifestyle upgrade. You don't relocate to the place where life will be harder but you can build something for future generations, you relocate to the place with better weather or more Thai restaurants. Having moved to Brooklyn for just that reason (well, not literally the Thai food), I am not condemning anyone for making that choice, but I wonder what our future holds if no one is willing or able to choose the frontier.