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Space: America Concedes the Lead

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05/09/2010 07:03 PM
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Space: America Concedes the Lead
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.

[link to www.gwynnedyer.com]