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”.

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Do you think countries should be investing in sending humans to the moon?

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.

Comments (26) Add New Comment
Issac Chandler
>“I know China is headed to the moon,” Romney told a town hall audience

China will not finance an American deep space program... Niether will Romney or Wall Street - they've neutered the capacity of the US to do so and organized a pledge:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grover_Norquist#Taxpayer_Protection_Pledge
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miguel
I've been hearing about a cash flow problem, not sure if it's true or not though.
It's been some time since both NASA and the Pentagon could have all their wishlists fulfilled. Right now there is big bucks being made in armaments.
Miguel
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Coach Dobbs
It is a safe bet that Obama would much sooner have the program continue however cancelaltion of the program is a matter of cost cutting. This just another symptom of the decline of the US. Much has changed since 1969 when US budget spending were more in control but now the US is quickly becoming just another Greece or Spain, not because of excessive social programs but due in part to bloated security and military costs driven by a collective paranoa with expenditures well beyond revenues and a staggerring, non sutainable debt load. This situation didn't exist in 1969.when Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon. It is indeed a shame that it has all come to this.
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prenup
deep space travel is a total and utter complete waste of money and resources.
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Dennis Ryan
When we went to the moon in 1969, there happened to be an equally trailblazing TV program called "Star Trek" that predicted us not only being in space, but living there comfortably. The program captured the public's imagination as never before. Gene Roddenbarry did things on that program never done before: a jew named Leonard Nimoy playing an alien named Spock; a black lady communications officer named Uhura and finally, a Russian ensign named Chekov; all now iconic characters. And legend has it Roddenberry had to fight hard to keep these characters, given the temperament at the time. Future space exploration indeed requires a united Earth, where we can pool resources to create the ships and technology to get us out there. Various experts have said as much, and there is even a morality behind this that is self evident. I can't support any future space exploration, as much as I would like to, until we mature enough to cooperate and stop squabbling with each other and fighting useless and morally wasteful wars. Our collective vision needs to be much bigger.
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R U Kiddingme
Dennis - I'm not a big believer in waiting until conditions are perfect if the project itself is worthwhile. I happen to believe that the Roddenberry utopia (all nations holding hands in space) is both desirable and achievable and I don't know that the cart can't lead the horse in this aspect. There's already an international space station, why not an international space agency -- Starfleet, if you will -- administered in a relatively neutral land and chartered in such a way that it would be difficult to pervert into a weapon against any one country.

Not to say that it should be unarmed -- I also think it is prudent to do have some guns pointing up at the incoming asteroids -- but just to develop it internationally.

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R. Glort
I assume "prenup" is just being a troll, but:

1 modest sized asteroid when mined would produce 100s of billions of dollars worth of precious metals.

If we used half the asteroids and less than 1% of the moon, we could produce space habitats (with lakes, hills, and forests) with 100 times the living space of the Earth's surface.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Island_Three

A waste if we don't do it, for if we don't we'll almost surely ruin the Earth and ourselves. Versus making the Earth a park, and humankind richer than most can imagine.

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SPY vs SPY
I wish someone would provide 1 or 2 examples of any benefits that the manned space program has brought to mankind.

The Space program has cost Billions if not a few Trillions of dollars, for what?

For the most part the 1960's and 1970's space program was a cover for developing Inter - Continental Ballistic Rockets that would carry Nuclear Weapons halfway around the world in just an hours or so.

So please anyone who supports this gigantic waste of money, please feel free to list all the many benefits from having Men on the Moon and the 2 Space Station Programs.

GPS and Satalite Photography are not part of the Manned Space Program.
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R U Kiddingme
@spy

I don't think that space exploration has to have "use" in order to be a good thing. I think we are going to have to get off this planet eventually for research, for power generation, and maybe just for real estate.

But that said, there's also lots of useful stuff that came out of space exploration:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/NASA_spin-off_technologies
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Toddly
And is there anything that people are capable of doing in space that robots can't do better? Let's remember folks that most of the cost of getting humans places is looking after the breathing/eating/excreting and safety aspects of it. To do what? Write poetry? Exploration, mining, science, whatever -- dollars better spent doing it with robots.
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SPY vs SPY
RU The Kid,

I took a look at the web site you have posted.

The USA Space Program has cost about $5 - $10 Trillion Dollars in today's money. I trying to go to the Moon and building 2 space stations we have indirectly discovered some materials that have a useful purpose.

So why could these discoveries have not been made for reasons other than LUNACY.

Also every rocket launch also spews a gigantic amount of pollution into the atmosphere.
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Dennis Ryan
R U Kiddingme- I'd like to believe you're right- that the goal might be the incentive to "make us one". When the Apollo 8 astronauts took the famous "earth photo", it did have the effect of making us realize that we all share one blue planet in the vastness of space. But when the country that put us on the moon hasn't returned because of much more polarized political infighting, and political "hotspots" on the planet threaten more wars, I for one live in a very uncomfortable doubt. Space is worth exploring, just as our ancestors explored this planet, and we need to do much more there, especially our oceans. But it does require will, and money, and there doesn't seem to be much of either these day.
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Mark Fornataro
Deep space is a luxury no one can afford. Let's fix earth first-with all its environmental problems.
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ex-Haney guy
@spy
You're using it-the computers we're using is a direct spin-off of the space program, and from that, the internet.
The earth has about 4-5billion years left-if humanity can survive, were will we go?
So, live long and prosper, you prick
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R U Kiddingme
@spy vs spy

Good question, but in the meantime, those innovations that inevitably arise when novel problems are introduced to a motivated body of engineering geniuses, are not being done in the theoretical cheaper model you envision.

I also don't think it is a crazy objective. Establishing human presence in deep space seems inevitable.
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UrbanSurvivor
3 Points.

Jim Lovell never walked on the moon.

Its the National AERONAUTICS and Space Administration. (I would think Dyer would know these facts...meh..maybe he is busy)

and at Dennis Ryan...Star Trek wasnt a popular show when it was first broadcast, as evidenced by the network constantly changing its time slot. It only became huge in syndication.
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Ilan Hersht
I think about space exploration in two ways:
1 - A "pure science" exercise that also facilitates very blue sy engineering
2 - A human exercise. Maybe it's about our fundamental nature as explorers & colonizer. Maybe it's about outliving the earth.

Number one can be (to an extent) measured and manned flight may not be the best ay to go about it.

Number two is a global exercise and a multi generational one. The US' victory in the "space race" was when manned exploration slowed down. Maybe this will encourage other countries to take the lead. Maybe making way for a commercial industry in the US will prove a bigger contribution ultimately. Maybe restarting the program in 15 years will allow NASA II to pursue exploration with a new eyes.

It's such a big project that relying on one party, even the US government, is not right. In the big scheme of things a single generation of a signal country sitting it out is not a mortal wound.
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P.Peto
Humans are like noxious weeds, we have overrun,despoiled,degraded Earth CAUSING mass extinction,why would you also wish to contaminate the moon and beyond?
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ErnestPayne
The remains of the US space programme can be found in the US wars on drugs, crime, Iraq (twice), Afghanistan, etc. You cannot have a guns and butter economy.
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John Doty
“We will have wasted our current $10-billion-plus investment in Constellation,”

That demonstrates Mr. Armstrong's failure to grasp the problem we have. It isn't 1969 anymore. It doesn't cost $10 billion to develop a rocket. We have much better and more cost-effective materials and processes than we had in 1969. SpaceX, in particular, has developed its Falcon 9 for less than $1 billion, and it has already delivered cargo to the ISS. It expects to launch its first manned mission by 2015. It's *far* ahead of where Constellation would have been, at a small fraction of the cost.

Mr. Dyer, a historian ought to appreciate why the voyage of Columbus could ignite an explosion of exploration, conquest, and colonization, while the voyage of Armstrong could not. Circa 1500, with available technology, the amount of labor on shore required to outfit a sailor, soldier, or colonist for an ocean voyage was about one man-year per year spent at sea. For Armstrong's voyage, the ratio was something like a million to one. The ratio has since come down to a few thousand to one, but much of that improvement reflects less challenging missions that are merely longer in duration, not genuine productivity improvements.

Clearly, human spaceflight will be a marginal human activity, confined to a few people, unless this ratio can be brought down to something like 1:1. Is this even possible? I don't know: all I can observe is that over the last few decades other areas of technology such as computation and communication have seen the kind of productivity improvement that human spacefight needs. The SpaceX program isn't enough, but it's a step in the right direction. Constellation was not.
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