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Neil Armstrong

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Armstrong and Obama

26 August 2012

Armstrong and Obama: The Abandonment of the US Manned Space Programme

By Gwynne Dyer

When the first man on the Moon died on Saturday, President Barack Obama tweeted: “Neil Armstrong was a hero not just of his time, but of all time.” Armstrong’s final comment on Obama, on the other hand, was that the president’s policy on manned space flight was “devastating”, and condemned the United States to “a long downhill slide to mediocrity.”

That was two years ago, when three Americans who had walked on the Moon, Neil Armstrong, James Lovell, commander of Apollo 13, and Eugene Cernan, commander of Apollo 17, published an open letter to Obama pointing out that his new space policy effectively ended American participation in the human exploration of deep space.

Armstrong was famously reluctant to give media interviews. It took something as hugely short-sighted as Obama’s cancellation of the Constellation programme in 2010 to make him speak out in public. But when he did, he certainly did not mince his words.

“We will have wasted our current $10-billion-plus investment in Constellation,” he said, “and equally importantly, we will have lost the many years required to recreate the equivalent of what we will have discarded. For the United States…to be without carriage to low Earth orbit and with no human exploration capability to go beyond Earth orbit…destines our nation to become one of second or even third rate stature.”

Barack Obama was never a politician with a big international vision. He has experts to do that stuff for him, and of course they are all part of the “Washington consensus,” which is just as parochial as he is. So he cancelled the big Ares rockets that would have taken American astronauts back to the Moon and onwards to Mars and the asteroids. Some other spending programme just yelled louder. Maybe the Navy wanted another aircraft carrier.

If NASA (the National Aviation and Space Administration) wants to put an American into space now, it has to buy passage on a Russian rocket, which is currently over $50 million per seat. By 2015 the Chinese will probably be offering an alternative service (which may bring the price down), and before long India may be in the business as well. But the United States won’t.

There is likely to be a gap of between five and ten years between the retirement of the Space Shuttle fleet last year and the first new American vehicles capable of putting a human being into space. Even then it will only be into low Earth orbit: none of the commercial vehicles now being developed will be able to do what the Saturn rockets did 41 years ago when they sent Neil Armstrong and his colleagues to the Moon.

Armstrong was a former military officer who would never directly call the President of the United States a liar or a fool, but his words left little doubt of what he really thought: “The availability of a commercial transport to orbit as envisioned in the president’s proposal cannot be predicted with any certainty, but is likely to take substantially longer and be more expensive than we would hope.” In other words, don’t hold your breath.

He was equally blunt about Obama’s assurances that the United States was not really giving up on deep space: “While the president’s plan envisages humans travelling away from Earth and perhaps toward Mars at some time in the future, the lack of developed rockets and spacecraft will assure that ability will not be available for many years.” Not the return to the Moon by 2020 planned by the Constellation programme, but pie in the sky when you die.

This is not a global defeat for manned exploration of the solar system. The Russians are talking seriously about building a permanent base on the Moon, and all the major Asian contenders are working on heavy-lift rockets that would enable them to go beyond Earth orbit. It’s just an American loss of will, shared equally by Obama and Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney.

“I know China is headed to the Moon,” Romney told a town hall audience in Michigan in February. “They’re planning on going to the Moon, and some people say, oh, we’ve got to get to the Moon, we’ve got to get there in a hurry to prove we can get there before China. It’s like, guys, we were there a long time ago, all right? And when you get there would you bring back some of the stuff we left?” Arrogant, complacent, and wrong.

Americans went to the Moon a long time ago, but the point is that they can’t get there now, and won’t be able to for a long time to come. Which is why, in an interview fifteen years ago, Neil Armstrong told BBC science correspondent Pallab Ghosh: “The dream remains. The reality has faded a bit, but it will come back, in time.” It will, but probably not in the United States.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 9. (“Barack…carrier”; and “He was…die”)



Space: America Concedes the Lead

20 April 2010

Space: America Concedes the Lead

By Gwynne Dyer

In the movies, all the spacemen are Americans, but that’s just because Hollywood makes the movies. In the real world, the United States is giving up on space, although it is trying hard to conceal its retreat. Last week, three Americans with a very special status – they have all commanded missions to the Moon – made their dismay public.
In an open letter Neil Armstrong, the first human being to walk on the Moon, Jim Lovell, commander of Apollo 13, and Eugene Cernan, commander of Apollo 17, condemned President Barack Obama’s plans for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) as the beginning of a “long downhill slide to mediocrity” for the United States.
The letter was timed to coincide with Obama’s visit to Cape Canaveral to defend his new policy, which abandons the goal of returning to the Moon by 2020, or indeed ever. Obama insists that this sacrifice will allow the US to pursue a more ambitious goal, but his plan send Americans to Mars by the late 2030s has the distinct political advantage of not needing really heavy investment while he is still in office – even if he wins a second term.
The “Constellation” programme that he scrapped had two goals. One was to replace the ageing Shuttle fleet for delivering people and cargo to near-Earth orbits. The other was to give the US the big rockets it would need to meet George W. Bush’s target of
establishing a permanent American base on the Moon by 2020 where rockets would be assembled to explore the Solar System.
That programme’s timetable was slipping and would undoubtedly have slipped further, as such programmes often do. It would have ended up costing a lot: $108 billion by 2020, as much as the Pentagon spends in three months, with the possibility that it would have ended up costing one or two more months’s worth of the defence budget. But it would have kept the United States in the game. Obama’s plan only pretends to.
He says all the right things: “Nobody is more committed to manned space flight, to human exploration of space, than I am, but we’ve got to do it in a smart way.” He talked about a manned mission to some asteroid beyond the Moon by around 2025, and another that will orbit Mars for some months in the mid-2030s –“and a landing on Mars will follow.”
Those are indeed ambitious goals, and they would require heavy-lift rockets that do not yet exist. But the “vigorous new technology development” programme that might lead to those rockets will get only $600 million annually (the price of four F-22 fighters) for the next five years, and actual work on building such rockets would probably not begin until 2015.
In the meantime, and presumably even for some years after Obama leaves office in 2016 (should he be re-elected in 2012), the United States will have no vehicle capable of putting astronauts into orbit. It will be able to buy passenger space on Russian rockets, or on the rapidly developing Chinese manned vehicles, or maybe by 2015 even on Indian rockets. But it will essentially be a hitch-hiker on other countries’ space programmes.
Obama suggests that this embarrassment will be avoided because private enterprise will come up with cheap and efficient “space taxis” that can at least deliver people and cargo to the International Space Station once in a while. And he’s going to invest a whole $6 billion in these private companies over the next five years.
These entrepreneurs are mainly people who made a pile of money in the dotcom boom or in computer game design, and now want to do something really interesting with some of it: people like Amazon president Jeff Bezos, John Carmack, programmer of Doom and Quake, Elon Musk, co-founder of PayPal, and of course Richard Branson of Virgin Everything. “Our success is vital to the success of the US space programme,” Musk said recently.
No doubt they will get various vehicles up there, but if they can build something by 2020 that can lift as much as the ancient Shuttles into a comparable orbit, let alone something bigger that can go higher, I will eat my hat. Space technology eats up capital almost as fast as weapons technology, and these entrepreneurs have no more than tens of billions at most.
Does Obama know this? Very probably, yes. One suspects that he would actually be cutting NASA’s budget, not very slightly raising it, if its centre of gravity (and employment) were not in the swing state of Florida, where he cannot afford to lose any votes. What is going on here is a charade, which is why normally taciturn astronauts – including the famously private Neil Armstrong – signed that open letter.
So for the next decade, at least, the United States will be an also-ran in space, while the new space powers forge rapidly ahead. And even if some subsequent administration should decide it wants to get back in the race, it will find it almost impossible to catch up.
Which is why the first man on Mars will probably Chinese or Indian, not American.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 10 and 12. (“These…everything”; and “Does…letter”)