Gwynne Dyer: The abandonment of the U.S. manned space program
When the first man on the moon died on August 25, President Barack Obama tweeted: “Neil Armstrong was a hero not just of his time, but of all time.” Armstrong’s final comment on Obama, on the other hand, was that the president’s policy on manned space flight was “devastating”, and condemned the United States to “a long downhill slide to mediocrity”.
That was two years ago, when three Americans who had walked on the moon—Neil Armstrong, James Lovell, commander of Apollo 13, and Eugene Cernan, commander of Apollo 17—published an open letter to Obama pointing out that his new space policy effectively ended American participation in the human exploration of deep space.
Armstrong was famously reluctant to give media interviews. It took something as hugely short-sighted as Obama’s cancellation of the Constellation program in 2010 to make him speak out in public. But when he did, he certainly did not mince his words.
“We will have wasted our current $10-billion-plus investment in Constellation,” he said, “and equally importantly, we will have lost the many years required to recreate the equivalent of what we will have discarded. For the United States...to be without carriage to low Earth orbit and with no human exploration capability to go beyond Earth orbit...destines our nation to become one of second or even third rate stature.”
Barack Obama was never a politician with a big international vision. He has experts to do that stuff for him, and of course they are all part of the “Washington consensus”, which is just as parochial as he is. So he cancelled the big Ares rockets that would have taken American astronauts back to the moon and onwards to Mars and the asteroids. Some other spending program just yelled louder. Maybe the Navy wanted another aircraft carrier.
If NASA (the National Aviation and Space Administration) wants to put an American into space now, it has to buy passage on a Russian rocket, which is currently over $50 million per seat. By 2015 the Chinese will probably be offering an alternative service (which may bring the price down), and before long India may be in the business as well. But the United States won’t.
There is likely to be a gap of between five and 10 years between the retirement of the Space Shuttle fleet last year and the first new American vehicles capable of putting a human being into space. Even then it will only be into low Earth orbit: none of the commercial vehicles now being developed will be able to do what the Saturn rockets did 41 years ago when they sent Neil Armstrong and his colleagues to the moon.
Armstrong was a former military officer who would never directly call the president of the United States a liar or a fool, but his words left little doubt of what he really thought: “The availability of a commercial transport to orbit as envisioned in the president's proposal cannot be predicted with any certainty, but is likely to take substantially longer and be more expensive than we would hope.” In other words, don’t hold your breath.
He was equally blunt about Obama’s assurances that the United States was not really giving up on deep space: “While the president's plan envisages humans travelling away from Earth and perhaps toward Mars at some time in the future, the lack of developed rockets and spacecraft will assure that ability will not be available for many years.” Not the return to the moon by 2020 planned by the Constellation program, but pie in the sky when you die.
This is not a global defeat for manned exploration of the solar system. The Russians are talking seriously about building a permanent base on the moon, and all the major Asian contenders are working on heavy-lift rockets that would enable them to go beyond Earth orbit. It’s just an American loss of will, shared equally by Obama and Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney.
“I know China is headed to the moon,” Romney told a town hall audience in Michigan in February. “They’re planning on going to the moon, and some people say, oh, we’ve got to get to the moon, we’ve got to get there in a hurry to prove we can get there before China. It’s like, guys, we were there a long time ago, all right? And when you get there would you bring back some of the stuff we left?” Arrogant, complacent, and wrong.
Americans went to the moon a long time ago, but the point is that they can’t get there now, and won’t be able to for a long time to come. Which is why, in an interview 15 years ago, Neil Armstrong told BBC science correspondent Pallab Ghosh: “The dream remains. The reality has faded a bit, but it will come back, in time.” It will, but probably not in the United States.