Unaffordable, or irrelevant. How NASA saw lunar colonists departing earth orbit
Unaffordable, or irrelevant. How NASA saw lunar colonists departing earth orbit

At a populist level there may be much pain and anger in America over President Obama’s budget proposal to abandon the Constellation project to return US astronauts to the moon by 2020.

The Shuttle and Apollo Saturn V launcher compared to the two Ares rockets for the Constellation project, credit NASA
The Shuttle and Apollo Saturn V launcher compared to the two Ares rockets for the Constellation project, credit NASA

The political dimension was discussed in the Crikey subscriber bulletin today.

But this is about much more than the symbolism and science of the original moon race of half a century ago. It goes way beyond the GWB plan to set up a permanent manned base on the moon as a way station to Mars, a proposal that was in its own right running into some severe criticism at various levels from its impact on science spending in general to the probability of the astronauts being killed by solar flare radiation long before making it to the red planet.

It is about American engagement with the race that China, Russia, Europe and India are already running hard in the space industry stakes. This is the industry of designing, making and selling both disposable and re-usable multi mission space freighters, the business of giant research and military assemblies in orbit or on the surface of accessible asteroids, the future convergence of prime orbital real estate with the distribution of communications bandwidths orders of magnitude larger than what the world uses today, the cleansing of near space from space junk, and, alas, locations from which directed energy weapons can cover almost half a world.

When the White House media management machine was leaking the abandon-the-moon message to reporters over the weekend it also had a sub text.

It was going to better engage private capital in the design of a replacement vehicle for the Space Shuttles, which are well past their prudent life time, and due to finish flying before year’s end. The reward of course is to own the future profits of the next generation of heavy reusable space lifters that perform government and private industry contracts in a century where space exploitation will be tens of times more valuable than it is at this stage.

In this sense, the Obama administration is doing something at least a decade overdue, and ensuring that the US has its own new generation reusable spacecraft instead of having to rely unduly on Russian Soyuz launches for manned ISS missions and other applications requiring humans in orbit.

It can also be argued as accelerating a less bureaucratic, more entrepreneurial involvement in space technology by US companies, although the other reality is that these will often be enterprises that are taking the same trans national approach to risk and cost sharing as Airbus and Boeing in commercial air transport.

India's space lifters. Graphic by ISRO
India's space lifters. Graphic by ISRO

Last month the Washington Post published a detailed assessment of China’s space program with special reference to its lunar ambitions.

This includes the probability it will launch a manned lunar mission as early as 2017, or some eight years sooner than some sources see India as achieving this capability.

India's Polar Satellite Launcher Vehicle
India's Polar Satellite Launcher Vehicle

In its overview, which sounded like a background briefing, the Washington Post article notes:

This combination of financial wealth, educational excellence, advanced technology and a penchant for plundering intellectual property has enabled China’s space program to develop swiftly. In 2003, China’s gained entry into the exclusive manned-space club previously restricted to the United States and Russia. By 2008, Chinese astronauts were taking space walks and buzzing tiny “BX-1” nano-satellites around their space capsules, a technology that puts them on the cutting edge of “space situational awareness” that America’s military space assets still lack.

Beijing’s political and military leaders alike foresee “competition” in space with the United States. They certainly plan to seize the high ground of low-Earth orbit and then will likely move to the even higher ground of moon landings perhaps before this decade is out. Judging from the past behavior of China’s state-owned aerospace firms especially in their unseemly eagerness to proliferate ballistic missile technology to rogue states, it is unlikely that Mr. Obama can count on much “cooperation” with China in space – except on China’s terms.

It even analysed the human resource in space engineering in NASA, aged, and approaching retirement, compared to that of China, which was more numerous, much younger and graduating en mass from universities that were had more funds and were better equipped and with higher standards than comparable graduate institutions in the US.

Obama will presumably face a tough fight to get his goodbye-moon-and-Mars measures through Congress, despite the importance of inspiring more private US industry investment in space.

But it doesn’t matter. The heavy industrial space age is already happening, with or without America.

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