As a space enthusiast who grew up in the 1960s – and was sure as a boy that he would be travelling to the moon and back by 2010 – I have mixed feelings about the demise of Nasa’s return-to-the-moon programme, announced in President Obama’s federal budget announcement.
While I am sad that the US will not, after all, be sending astronauts back to the moon this decade, I recognise that the Constellation lunar return programme, a legacy of the Bush administration, was unsustainable in the present financial climate.
Constellation involves two Ares rockets, one of which has already been launched on an unmanned test flight, and an Orion crew vessel on which the space agency Nasa has already spent – wasted, as it turns out – an estimated $9bn. But, as the White House buget statement puts it, ” the program was over budget, behind schedule and lacking in innovation due to a failure to invest in critical new technologies.”
Instead, Nasa’s manned space activities will focus on new rockets developed by private companies to fly astronauts to the International Space Station in low orbit just 340km above the Earth. The ISS, a collaborative project also involving the Russian, European, Japanese and Canadian space agencies, would keep going at least until 2020.
This will require Nasa and its partner agencies to give the public a clearer idea of ISS’s purpose and mission. Is it there mainly as a symbol of permanent human presence in space, pointing to future manned missions to more exciting destinations such as Mars? Or is it a practical base for carrying out research in zero gravity above the Earth’s atmosphere? No one seems really to know at the moment.
President Obama wants Nasa to work with commercial companies to develop much less expensive space vehicles to convey people to and from the ISS. This will require the agency to adopt more of a hands-off attitude to space transport design and to involve innovative private companies such as SpaceX and Orbital Sciences. Until now the agency has specified all details of its rockets, which have been built by big contractors such as Northrop Grumman and United Technologies.
President George W. Bush saw a return to the moon as a step towards sending astronauts to Mars a decade or two later. His successor has not removed a Martian voyage from Nasa’s long-term agenda but he says the US cannot afford to take the intermediate step.
Mr Obama’s decision appears to leave the lunar landing field clear for China and India. Both countries are planning manned moon missions for later this decade.
However, the administration will face fierce opposition in Congress, both from politicians who feel that US national pride and security require a more active manned space programme and from those whose states or districts stand to lose a lot of aerospace business from the new policy.
Senator Bill Nelson of Florida, Nasa’s main launch base, said: “I, for one, intend to stand up and fight for Nasa, and for the thousands of people who stand to lose their jobs.”