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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.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 10 and 12. (“These…everything”; and “Does…letter”)

The Moon and Mars

15 January 2004

The Moon and Mars: Another False Dawn?

By Gwynne Dyer

When President John F. Kennedy promised in 1961 to send Americans to the Moon before the end of the decade, he meant it — and it happened only eight years later. When President George H.W. Bush proposed to begin “the permanent settlement of space” on the 20th anniversary of the first Moon landing in 1989, he meant it too — but NASA came up with a total budget of $400 billion, and Congress killed it. When President George W. Bush announced last Wednesday that he was going to send Americans back to the Moon AND to Mars, however, practically nobody believed it.

It’s the right plan if you want the human race to get out into the universe: permanent lunar bases by 2020, and manned missions to Mars by 2030. But the new money for NASA in the current plan is ridiculously small: Mr. Bush will only ask Congress for one billion dollars split over the next five years. He also proposes to move $11 billion of the $86 billion currently earmarked for other NASA projects over the next five years into the Moon and Mars project, but that’s it. The total amount of money that will be spent on this plan under the Bush administration, even if he serves for another four years, is $12 billion.

There’s no point in getting outraged about it. It’s Mr Bush’s election-year ploy to win popular support by doing the ‘vision thing’ (as his father used to put it). It’s also an attempt to divert attention from the simultaneous announcements that the US will pull out of the International Space Station as soon as its legal obligation to help finish it is discharged, leaving other countries to operate and maintain it, and will scrap the space shuttles by 2010. Yet the world may yet derive some benefit from Mr Bush’s empty rhetoric.

It really is a good idea to go back to the Moon and onward to Mars, for reasons so long-term that they barely get mentioned in the usual debates: the survival of the human race, and contact with extraterrestrial life. The pay-off on these two issues, if it ever comes, is probably at least several centuries in the future — but they are still very important issues.

In the short run, a permanent human presence on the Moon or even on Mars does little to enhance the survivability of the human race, since such settlements would remain tiny and totally dependent on support from Earth. But technological advances accumulate, the energy available to modify inhospitable environments increases almost exponentially, and what is unimaginable now may be quite feasible in a hundred years’ time.

It really would be a good idea to spread the human race to a few more places (or many more), because keeping all our eggs in the single vulnerable basket called Earth is not a smart long-term survival strategy if we have any alternatives. We don’t yet, but it would be a good idea to start working on them. And even if it turns out that we don’t create permanent colonies anywhere else in the Solar System, we have to learn how to get around our own neighbourhood before we go to the stars.

At this point in the argument, it is traditional for clever people with bored voices to explain why the laws of physics mean that interstellar travel is forever impossible. But the laws of physics have already been overturned at least once by new knowledge, and it is possible that even now we don’t know everything. If we can get out into the wider universe, then we should, both because it enhances the human race’s chances of surviving local disasters back here and because we might eventually make contact with other intelligent species.

(Are they really there? Nobody knows, but every month sees the discovery of more planets circling nearby stars, and the chemical building blocks of life are present even in interstellar gas clouds.)

None of this can possibly happen, even in the long term, unless we take the first steps out into deep space in the short term. Since there are no short-term pay-offs to manned space exploration and settlement that are likely to repay the huge investments that are required, and since the political process does not favour really long-term investment, the only incentive that will actually get governments to spend this kind of money on space is a ‘space race’ that involves national pride and prestige. So isn’t it fortunate that Mr Bush has made going back to the Moon an American national goal, and that Beijing has declared its intention of putting a Chinese spaceman on the Moon by 2010 (well before any American is scheduled to arrive)?

Mr Bush hasn’t put his money where his mouth is yet, but either he or his successor is likely to find himself in a race to the Moon, like it or not. That might finally shake enough money loose to get a real American space programme up and running again. It doesn’t really matter which country does the work of opening up the Solar System, but it would certainly help to have America in the race.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 8. (“There’s…rhetoric”;and “Are…clouds”)