Sci-Tech

Mankind won’t return to the Moon for a long, long time

By Branko Brkic 2 February 2010

Fans of space travel everywhere, rejoice not. As the outlines of US President Barack Obama's proposed $3.8 billion 2011 budget started appearing in news, one major loser was obvious: Nasa will not get the $100 billion it needs to send a manned spaceship back to the Moon by 2020 as originally planned.

Times are tough and the US is not the rich nation it once was. Eight years of prosecuting two very expensive wars and simultaneous tax cuts, coupled with the near meltdown of 2008, have pushed it into desperate waters. From the Clinton-era budget surfeit of $200 billion, the US government today operates a $1.6 trillion annual deficit. Couple that with the change in political fortunes and the falling public approval for Obama’s radical reforms and it is clear he had to make the right noises about cutting the deficit to a reasonable level.

The 2011 budget does propose $18 billion for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, and, all in all, $100 billion over the next five years. But there are no funds for the Moon mission anymore. Instead, it plans to invest money into developing technologies that could ultimately be useful for missions in the second part of the 21st century, things such as new propulsion systems or robotic factories that could turn Martian soil into rocket fuel.

But even more dramatic is the fundamental rethink of Nasa’s future role. For more than five decades, Nasa was a kind of high-end one-stop-shop that was expected to control just about everything breaking free of Earth’s atmosphere. Now, Nasa will probably turn into a gigantic overseeing body, while the actual playing in the field will be left to international and commercial players. Lockheed Martin and Boeing are pretty much natural fits for this role, but expect Elon Musk’s Space-X, Jeff Bezos’s New Shepard rocket and even Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic to try their best in the newly-available space.

Or, as The New York Times’ Kenneth Chang puts it: “… the budget proposal makes it clear that any future exploration programme will be an international collaboration, not an American one, more like the International Space Station than Apollo”.

It was a heart-breaking moment for everyone who ever dreamed of watching as Man again walked the powdery grey surface of our only satellite. The great engineering race the last time we went there was 50 years ago. Today we could put on a much better show. This time we would have seen Mr Right Stuff’s every step in stunning 3D, see the Earth shine in all its impossible HD blueness. Of course, whoever bounce-walked there would be tweeting continuously about every minute, something like “Planet Earth is blue and there’s nothing I can do – always dreamed of saying it!” or, “Man, all this technology and they still don’t know how to build a good space toilet!” (Tweet client would have been, of course, built directly into his brain.) And all of us down here would have felt the real thing, as though we were actually there, unlike the grainy and blurry stuff from the late sixties.

But there’s more that hurts: humanity’s big space plans happened to be set aside by the only US president who knows how to greet in flawless Vulcan. Live Long and Prosper too, President Obama!

By Staff Writer

Read more: The New York Times, Space.com

Photo: Astronaut Edwin E. Aldrin Jr., lunar module pilot, poses beside the deployed flag of the United States during the Apollo XI moon landing July 20, 1969. The lunar module is at left and the footprints of the astronauts are visible in the foreground.

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