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Thursday, April 29, 2010

Obama conceding lead in space exploration

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.

Earlier this month, 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 U.S. 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 U.S. to pursue a more ambitious goal, but his plan to 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" program that he scrapped had two goals. One was to replace the aging Shuttle fleet for delivering people and cargo to near-Earth orbits. The other was to give the U.S. the big rockets it would need to meet former U.S. President 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 program's timetable was slipping and would undoubtedly have slipped further, as such programs 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' worth of the defense budget. But it would have kept the U.S. 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" program 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 U.S. 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 programs.

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 dot-com 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 U.S. space program," 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 center 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 U.S. 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 be Chinese or Indian, not American.

Gwynne Dyer is an independent journalist.

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