Clive Cookson

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.”

Clive Cookson

The coming week is going to be crucial for space astronomy.

On Monday the shuttle Atlantis is due to blast off from Cape Canaveral with seven astronauts, on Nasa’s fifth and last mission to service the 19-year-old Hubble Space Telescope.

Then on Thursday it will be the European Space Agency‘s turn. An unmanned Ariane 5 rocket will send two new observatories costing a total of €1.9bn, Herschel and Planck, into space.

Hubble is the most famous and successful telescope of modern times. It has sent back to Earth a stunning series of images of distant stars and galaxies, which have enabled astronomers to calculate the age of our universe (13.7bn years), estimate the speed at which it is flying apart and examine planets around other stars, among many other things.

The final servicing mission, costing $1bn, will replace some instruments on Hubble, mend others and replace batteries and gyros – extending its working life for at least five years. It is the most difficult mission undertaken by the shuttle, because it goes higher into orbit than routine flights to the International Space Station and involves more intricate space walks.

While Hubble looks at objects in the visible regions of the spectrum, Herschel and Planck operate at much longer wavelengths, which are not detectable by our eyes.

Although the pair are sharing a ride on Ariane 5, they are independent observatories.

Herschel will observe at a region of the spectrum, known as far infrared and submillimeter, that has until now been neglected by astronomers. This should enable it to see through dust and gas, which obscure observations at other wavelengths, to see stars and galaxies in their early stages of development.

Planck is designed to examine in greater detail than any previous instrument the “cosmic microwave background” radiation, left over from the Big Bang 13.7bn years ago. Cosmologists hope it will show them how an initial period of unbelievably rapid expansion laid down the patterns of stars and galaxies we see today – and help to explain mysteries such as dark matter and dark energy.

The world of research

The science blog is no longer updated but it remains open as an archive.

Clive Cookson, the FT's science editor, picks out the research that everyone should know about, in fields from astronomy to zoology. He also discusses key policy issues, from R&D funding to science education. He'll cover the weird and wonderful, as well as the serious side of science.