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Wave the Moon, and Mars, goodbye…

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I’ve watched some depressing things in my life. The scene in Babylon 5 where the great space station is ripped apart by internal explosions… poor Dumbo’s little trunk snaking up to touch his mother’s trunk through the bars of that prison truck, both of them in tears… the Enterprise dying, in flames, as she fell out of the Genesis Planet’s sky… England playing Australia in the Edgebaston Ashes Test Match…

But nothing, and I mean Nothing, comes close to how depressing it felt watching the final public meeting of the Augustine Commission.

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It was like watching a post mortem, a funeral and a wake all rolled into one, and at the end I would have slit my wrists with a piece of jagged glass, if my hands hadn’t been clenched so tightly into fists of despair I couldn’t move them.

Let’s rewind. The Augustine Commission, as you probably know, was tasked by President Obama to find a way – a new way, a bold way, a practical way – forwards for NASA which, most people agree, has rather lost its way recently. More specifically, the manned spaceflight side of NASA. The unmanned side – the side that designs, launches operates and flies spaceprobes and robots – has been having a great time of late, and there can be very few people now who aren’t aware that there are incredibly succesful unmanned spaceprobes operating on and around Mars, around Saturn and on their way to Pluto. Pictures from the twin Mars Exploration Rovers and the Cassini spacecraft are literally everywhere. It’s a golden age of unmanned planetary exploration, that’s for sure. But the manned spaceflight side of NASA? In a mess. With the space shuttle coming up for retirement soon, and its proposed replacement, the Orion capsule, not going to be ready to fly for several years after the last shuttle mission ends, the US faced a bleak period of “no access to space” for its astronauts, during which they’d have to rely on cadging lifts up to the space station from other countries. Rather embarrassing for the country that, 40 years ago last month, put people on the Moon, something no other nation has done.

So, the Augustine Commission was set up by President Obama and given the job of finding some new ways to reinvigorate the manned space exploration program. The Commission has been extremely busy, and has done a fantastic job, I think, of involving as many people, parties and organisations as possible. They’ve used all the new “social media” tools, like Twitter and Facebook, to draw people into their discussions, in the hope of making their report and recommendations as informed as possible. They’ve invited people to write to them, to email them, to just get involved, and many, many people have. One of my online friends, Keri Bean – “aggieastronaut” to her tweeting friends – actually attended one of the Commission meetings and addressed it, as “a member of the public”, and did a fantastic job. I was very proud of her!

Yesterday, after much behind-the-scenes deliberation and discussion, the Commission held its final public meeting, to explain how it had whittled down the list of “options” it would be putting to the President, from roughly a gazillion to a more manageable half dozen, and then refine that list still further in advance of taking a completed report to the White House. Before the meeting there was great excitement amongst the so-called “space enthusiast community”, and Twitter, message boards and forums were full of fevered speculation. Would the Commission be supporting the proposed Return to The Moon? Would it, instead, suggest NASA sends manned missions to asteroids Would it be truly bold and visionary and recommend NASA embarked on a program that would send people to Mars? Sat here at home, watching the meeting live on NASA TV, I felt the excitement too. As the Commission members took the stage and settled into their seats, everything and anything seemed possible!

A couple of hours later, after Sally Ride – the first US woman in space – had given her presentation, it was clear that Nothing Is Possible. At least, nothing is possible with the budget NASA is going to be given.

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Sally Ride – oh, the poor woman; she looked like she would rather have been cleaning out a constipated elephant’s intestinal tract with her bare hands than standing on that stage, at that podium, breaking the bad news – put on a brave face, and littered her presentation with quips and witty lines, but it fell to her to tell everyone the slap-across-the-face brutal truth: NASA’s budget simply isn’t great enough to let it do anything other than fly the space shuttle a few more times than planned, and then keep using the International Space Station. Unless the US Govt gives NASA more money, its astronauts will remain exiled in LEO onboard the ISS, and any exploration “out there” will be carried out by robots only. No matter how hard the Commission looked – and they looked under every rock, stone and Powerpoint presentation – they simply could not find a way that NASA could boost astronauts beyond Low Earth Orbit unless NASA’s budget is boosted too.

Sally actually said: “This budget is simply not friendly towards exploration”. Which is a subtle, non-offensive, non-inflammatory way of saying “The Moon? Mars? Ha! Don’t make me laugh! You’re taking the ****! We are going NOWHERE unless more money is spent on manned spaceflight.”

At the end of the meeting – well, I say the end, I didn’t actually see the end, I literally had to switch it off before the end I was so depressed – it was clear that for all its good intentions and enthusiasm, the Commission had run up against a financial brick wall. There would be no “Dash out of Low Earth Orbit”, which was one of their most visionary options, just a slow, wheezing, asthmatic crawl around the Earth for the lucky few astronauts who managed to thumb a ride up to the space station onboard foreign or even privately-funded commercial spacecraft. There would be no grand Return To The Moon, just a few, grudging “Are we there yet?” wet Bank Holiday excursions to it. There would be no Moonbase, not even a program of short stays. There would be no manned lunar exploration At All.

And as for sending people to Mars… well, that was swept off the table like crumbs left after a meal. All that was left was a well-meant and sincere – but ultimately absolutely frakking meaningless – statement of support for the goal of eventually sending people to Mars, without a time frame being mentioned. What this means in reality is that Mars is as far away as Alpha Centauri, to all intents and purposes.

So, any kids reading this who want to go to Mars when they grow up – forget it, set your sights on something more realistic. Hey, try going into your bedroom and walking into your wardrobe – you might come out in Narnia… don’t laugh, that’s about as likely as NASA sending people to Mars before you grow up, or the 100th anniversary of Apollo 11, or whichever comes first…

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So, what was the Commission left with? What are the options it is now considering?

A lot depends on the International Space Station. That will either be decomissioned – translation: abandoned and allowed to burn up like a shooting star – in 2016, when NASA’s primary responsibility for it ends, or, if more money and support can be obtained for the ISS from NASA’s international partners, its life could be extended to 2020 or even beyond. However, with no money in NASA’s kitty for a shuttle replacement, this would mean ISS crew travelling to and from it in privately-funded and built spacecraft, essentially the commercialisation of LEO which NASA would support. It was also possible that the ISS could find a new role as a kind of “orbital refuelling depot”, a bit like that ramshackle Russian space station in ARMAGEDDON…

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What about the ARES 1 rocket that NASA has been touting as the replacement for the space shuttle? Sorry, looks like there’s not enough money to build that AND the ARES 5 heavy lift rocket that the Commission is absolutely convinced that NASA needs, so if President Obama takes the Commission’s advice ARES 1 could be dead before it’s even made its first test flight, which is a bit ironic because the Ares 1 that will make that first test flight is almost ready to be wheeled out of the VAB…

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Instead NASA could encourage and support private companies to build the rockets and capsules that would ferry astronauts into LEO and back again. That would be a radical departure for the modern NASA, true, but it is, apparrently, what NASA was actually set up to do in the first place – i.e. to develop new technologies and then pass them on to private industry for them to use commercially.

What about the plans to Return To The Moon? Well, basically, they’re dead, or at the very least on hold. No money. Certainly the Commission thinks that a big Moonbase at a lunar pole is just not possible. They also think that a series of smaller missions, explorations of different lunar sites, is impossible under the current budget guidelines, so what’s left? Well, either a short, grudging visit to the Moon every couple of years, or even just manned flybys of the Moon. if that. But the way things stand, no-one is going to land on, or even just fly around, the Moon in the next twenty years. There’s just no money, see?

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That loud “bang!” you heard last night? That was the sound of the Augustine Commission pushing NASA’s poor terrified plan for lunar exploration to its knees and then executing it with a shot to the back of the head…

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Remember that poignant scene in APOLLO 13 where Jim Lovell takes in the dreadful truth and tells his crew “We just lost the Moon…”? Well, right now there are dozens of astronauts in NASA’s astronaut corps thinking exactly the same thing: “I just lost the Moon…”

One option the Commission had been discussing – before it realised that NASA doesn’t have enough money to do ANYTHING – is its so-called “Deep Space” option, which would see astronauts leaving low Earth orbit and travelling to other destinations… without landing on them.

Yes, you read that correctly, WITHOUT LANDING ON THEM.

There’s a technical term for that kind of mission, it’s called a “fly-by“!

Now, I have to make it clear before I go on that I admire the hard work the Commission has done. ( Personally I think they were handed a classic “No Win” situation, in that Obama knew from the start that NASA isn’t able to do anything exciting with its astronauts because he has no intention of giving them enough money to DO anything exciting with them, but this way he can say he’s just taking the advice of a panel of experts. Clever, eh? ) They have clearly worked tirelessly on this. But… come on… seriously? Fly-bys? Let me tell you about fly-bys.

Astronauts on a fly-by of a planet aren’t explorers, they’re tourists.

Fly-bys aren’t bold, they’re timid.

Fly-bys aren’t visionary, or daring, they’re shameful and shaming.

Fly-bys aren’t “exploring”, they’re sightseeing.

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That picture is funny cos it shows astronauts dragging suitcases behind them, but the truth of this situation is much worse – astronauts wouldn’t land on anything to drag suitcases across! Their feet would never touch the ground!

Can you imagine, I mean, can you IMAGINE, the utter waste of time, resources and money it would be to finally, after all these years, build a spaceship big enough to send people to Mars, and bring them home again safely, without them landing on the **** thing?!?!? Picture the scene. After a hazardous and arduous voyage of 6 long months, the crew of Ares 1 are approaching Mars. It looms large in their window, like a diseased orange. The mission is about to reach its wonderful climax…

“Let me see!”

“No, let ME see! Oww! Watch your elbows!”

“Well move! I was at the window first! Give me that camera!!”

“No! I want it – oh. Too late. We just passed Mars…”

How frustrated – how sick – would those astronauts be? How cheated would the taxpayers feel? How angry would the scientists be? Talk about a Lose Lose scenario.

Ok, what happens next? Well, the meeting – and the feelings of the Commission – can be summed up in one dagger-to-the-heart sentence: with the money available, the US’s human presence in space will be limited, for the forseeable future, to Low Earth Orbit, and the modules of the International Space Station.

And that’s it, really. For the forseeable future, the farthest US – and European and, essentially, Western – astronauts will travel in space is a few hundred metres beyond the airlock door of the International Space Station. The most exciting things they’re going to get to “explore” are the micrometeorite pitted rivets, pipes and plates on the outside of the ISS.

From now until around 2015, or 2020 at the latest, Space will not be the Final Frontier, the outer hull of the ISS will be. Maybe they should hang a sign on the inside of the Quest airlock, something like this…

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2009 will go down in the history books as a historic year for space exploration. It will be remembered as the 40th anniversary of Neil Armstrong stepping onto the surface of the Moon… and if President Obama doesn’t put his hand in his pocket and give NASA some more money it will also be remembered as the year NASA ‘s astronauts were forced into exile in low Earth orbit, while the US Govt happily surrendered the many diverse worlds of the solar system to machines.

Here’s the bottom line, folks: unless NASA’s budget is given a boost, for at least the next 30 years the solar system will belong to robots.

Or maybe not…

There are other nations interested in exploring the solar system in person. They don’t have the technology to do it… yet… or the experience to do it… yet… but they definitely want to, and it might well be that, sometime around 2020, US and European astronauts will stare forlornly out of the ISS window and see a manned spacecraft leaving Low Earth Orbit and heading out for the Moon…

Before the Commission shone a light onto the budget shortfall within NASA, the idea was scoffed at and ridiculed, but now I think there’s now a  very real possibility that the next words spoken on the surface of the Moon will be spoken in Chinese.

I’ve been giving Outreach talks for a long, long time, and have always told my audiences that  the person destined to be the first man or woman to set foot on Mars is already alive, and running around a school playground somewhere. I have always illustrated that point with a picture, something like this…

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… now I’m going to delete that picture from my Powerpoint presentation and replace it with this one…

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Melodramatic? Perhaps. Overly pessimistic? I think not. There’s no escaping the brutal truth of this. NASA now doesn’t have the money to send people farther than a couple of hundred miles away from Earth.

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Of course, there’s another, intriguing possibility. Maybe President Obama actually WANTS to boost NASA, and wants to give it more money, and that has been his Baldrick cunning plan all along, but he doesn’t feel he can do it without some kind of input from people ‘in the biz’ who know more about space exploration than he does? Maybe Obama really does feel some of the passion for spaceflight and exploration he talked about during his election campaign, and does want to see NASA sending people to the Moon and Mars, but doesn’t feel able to just stand up and call for increased funding on his own? Maybe his Masterplan all along was to set up a Commission that would tell him something he already knew – that NASA needs more money – thus allowing him to stand up in front of Congress and say “NASA could be great again… American men and women could push back the Final Frontier again… American astronauts could travel to other worlds again, and plant the Stars and Stripes in their ground again, but only if NASA is given the resources, the funds, to do it. This is not my opinion, but the opinion of a panel of respected space experts, explorers and commentators. The Moon calls… Mars beckons… the solar system is ours for the taking… if we are willing to support NASA…

You think?

No. Me neither. I live in hope, but I won’t hold my breath while I do it.

This is all very depressing, isn’t it? When you think of where we could be, and should be. Seriously, watching that Commission meeting was like going to the vet with a beloved pet. You’ve known it was ill for a while – it was off its food, was looking dishevelled and out of sorts, and couldn’t do the exciting things it used to any more – but you’d managed to convince yourself it was just a little off colour, not seriously ill. Suddenly the vet is telling you that your pet is actually VERY ill, and without radical treatment, probably surgery, it could actually die. Saving it will take money. A LOT of money…

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I mean, we all knew NASA was ill, right? We all knew that there was no chance of it escaping the global recession, that it wasn’t surrounded by some magical force field that would deflect all the financial bullets and shells… but I don’t think it was too naive of us to believe that it could be spared the brutal gutting it now looks destined to suffer. These are dark times indeed, and might be about to get even darker.

On Thursday night I thought I’d cheer myself up by going out and actually looking at the night sky. That usually lifts my spirits! After two evenings of Perseid meteor-hiding cloud the sky Thursday night was lovely and clear, so as I walked over to the Park opposite my flat I had high hopes of seeing some shooting stars, and was pretty sure that spending some time out beneath all those distant suns would help distract me from my Augustine-triggered melancholy. So, there I stood, looking up. To my right a golden, waning Moon was shining above the jagged silhouette of Kendal’s ruined castle, and above me the stars were clear and bright. “Come on,” I thought, urging the shooting stars to appear, “any time you like…”

Half an hour later, as the Parish Church bells tolled midnight, I hadn’t seen a single frakking shooting star. I can’t blame the Augustine Commission for that, I know, but it was just One More Thing.

So I did what I usually do, I wriggled my MP3 player’s headphones into my ears and put some music on to keep me awake. KT Tunstall first… couple of Ting Tings tracks… some Mike Oldfield…

Then the theme from the movie STAR TREK: FIRST CONTACT started playing, and I had a real Moment. Because as that beautiful trumpet fanfare began I just happened to be looking high to the south and west, up at the stars of the Summer Triangle – Deneb, Vega and Altair. Between them the Cygnus Star Cloud was a misty blur, beneath them the fainter star clouds of Sagittarius were just visible, vanishing behind the trees… It’s an area of sky I know very well, but now I can’t help but see it differently, because that part of the sky is where the planet-hunting KEPLER probe is now studying intensely, looking for Earth-like worlds orbiting other, alien suns. Whenever I look at that area of sky now I can almost see the Kepler “Field of view” superimposed on the sky…

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And as I stood there, staring up at those myriad stars, with the movie’s theme playing, listening to the trumpets blaring and the strings swirling, rather than feeling happier and lighter, I found myself feeling even more melancholy, because I realised that that Federation Future I wish for Mankind – where we’re an interplanetary, even an interstellar species – might now be much, much farther away than before. Now before anyone fires off a “Star Trek is science fiction! It’s not real life!” comment, I KNOW that already, ok? I’m not stupid! I don’t think we’re even remotely near a future where people travel between the stars at “warp speed” in gleaming, sleek, white starships. I believe… I hope… we’ll get there one day, but that’s many centuries ahead. But I did think we were heading for a future where missions to the Moon and Mars stopped being science fiction and became science fact.

After watching that Augustine Commission meeting I felt like Neo in the first Matrix film, you know? I had been perfectly happy in my own little pod, drooling over NASA computer animations of Ares rockets thundering skywards and astronauts bouncing around glinting Altair landers, believing as I read yet another NASA report or .pdf file describing the Return to The Moon and the subsequent exploration of Mars. I looked up at the sky believing that Everything Would Be Alright, believing that before I died I’d see see at least a couple of lights glinting in the dark seas of the Moon, as manned outposts were set up, believing that I’d live long enough to stand in my garden, believing that in my old age I’d look up and see an Iridium-like flare in the sky as the first manned expedition set off for Mars, followed half a year later by live TV footage of people bouncing across the surface of Mars…

Then Norm Augustine handed me that blasted red pill and I found myself in the Real World, the world beyond the Matrix, the world where, unless NASA is given more money, none of those things are going to happen before I die. None of them.

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Looking up at that starfield between Deneb and Vega, into which Kepler is currently staring, I wondered how many Other Earths are hiding within it.

And I wondered… if they are inhabited, how many of the species living on those Earths once took a Giant Leap off their homeworld and flew into space, only to turn their backs on the stars and their destiny a few short years later?

Or are we the first…?

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NOTE: Just in case anyone is confused, this is NOT an attack on, or a statement of dissatisfaction with, the Augustine Commission itself. They’re just the messenger giving the bad news, and don’t deserve to be shot. They’ve just shone a light on the problem that is NASA’s insufficient budget. Their report is a wake up call for the politicians who have the final say over NASA’s budget. In an idea world those politicians would think “Hmm, maybe we should give NASA more money… they inspire people and actually make the country money” but I’m not going to hold my breath. The worst case scenario here would be that the politicians suddenly decide that manned exploration should be given more money, but that money should come from NASA’s unmanned programs, which would mean huge problems for the plans for future Mars rovers and probes to the outer planets. I guess all we can do is wait and see what happens.