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We just lost the Moon… for now…

( Readers, please note: this is a long, personal ramble, one of those stream-of-consciousness posts that comes out when I’m trying to “get my head around” something and sort out how I feel about it, so it might not be particularly well structured, or make a lot of sense, and I might contradict myself here and there, but I’m still trying to make sense out of this Brave New NASA World so bear with me, ok? And if you disagree with me then fair enough, thanks for stopping by; as usual, I appreciate your company here, but don’t send snotty comments, please. I can guarantee you none of you love NASA, or space exploration, more than I do, so it’s a waste of time criticising me for feeling p’d off about all this. If you think I’m wrong then set up your own blog and put the counter argument, I’d like to read your thoughts! ūüôā )

Last Monday was a big day, a HUGE day for everyone involved in or just interested in space exploration, because NASA’s new budget was announced. After months and months of speculation, which followed the eagerly-anticipated report of the Augustine Commission, set up to review the US’s manned space program’s future and goals (and which basically concluded “Without a lot more money you are going nowhere and will be able to do b****r all”), President Obama gave his verdict on NASA’s ambitions plans to send astronauts back to the Moon, and on to Mars, via the ‘Constellation’ program of Ares rockets, Orion capsule and Altair lunar lander…

Some had expected NASA to be told to trim down its lunar and martian ambitions. Some had expected NASA to be be given more money in order to allow Constellation to sputter on. Not many expected the entire Constellation program to be scrapped – but that’s what happened. President Obama has basically tossed the whole thing – all the rockets, all the capsules, all the plans for Moon bases – in the bin, slammed the lid down on them, given the bin a good kick and then walked away.

When I heard the news I must admit I was very, very upset. As regular readers of this blog will know, one of my dreams is to see a man (or woman, before anyone writes in!) walk on Mars before I die. Hearing that the Constellation program had been crumpled up and tossed in the trash like a paper cup from MacDonalds was like the death of that dream, because if NASA isn’t oing to put people on Mars, who is? No other agency, or country, is anywhere near them technically (or financally), so the cancellation of Constellation’s Moon Base and launch architecture was essentially the cancellation of any manned Mars missions – by NASA – in the next 30 years, the way I saw it as I sat at work, in the staff room, reading the breaking news on my mobile phone. That was it. I was never going to see people bounding across Mars. In fact, I was probably never even going to see a Moon Base.

Yes, I was angry. “Short sighted ******* politicians!!!” “Penny pinching bureaucrats!!” etc etc growled out of me. Selfish, I know, but you know me, I love and live this stuff. It matters to me. I want to see people, not just robots, exploring Mars damnit!! ūüė¶

A¬†few days later tho, after giving it some thought, although my head is still spinning with the repercussions and significance of this, I can’t help thinking that this might actually, in a bizarre, strange, twisted way, be just what NASA needs. It might actually, in the long run, be A Good Thing. It might actually be NASA’s salvation rather than its doom.

Because, let’s face it, the whole Constellation program, the Constellation dream, was a complete mess from the start. Way, waaay over budget;¬†rockets and spacecraft that shrank – in size and ability – more and more as time passed; a¬†schedule written in sand, that slipped more often than Bambi taking his first steps on an icy pond…

I don’t know about you, but Constellation just never felt, well, real to me. It had no heart, no soul. It was a Powerpoint space program, a YouTube away team, and little more. My PC hard drive has folders crammed full of¬†MPEG4 ¬†and Quicktime animations¬†showing Ares rockets thundering into the sky, or astronauts rolling across the Moon’s surface in sexy-looking rovers and buggies, always to soaring, inspiring music and usually with lots of trendy, shaky, Battlestar Galactica-type camera effects. I’ve shown them again and again during Outreach talks, and they’ve always gone down pretty well… but watching them¬†I don’t think I ever truly believed any of them myself. They looked fantastic, and represented a bold, exciting future, but that future didn’t seem… real.

There was no public interest in or excitement about Constellation because, cards on the table time, NASA did a crap job of promoting, selling and justifying it. They never, NEVER, made a convincing case for WHY people should go back to the Moon, for WHY a mountain of money should be spent on building a Moon Base.¬†Many people I met at my talks and Outreach events asked “They want to go to the Moon again? Why? We’ve already been there, haven’t we? What’s the point?”

I think NASA actually managed to make missions to the Moon seem boring with Constellation – it was all about the launches, and the rockets, and astronauts jiggering about in sexy, gleaming rovers, and not WHY going to the Moon is a good thing to do.

Hardly anyone I know – outside of “space circles” – had a clue what NASA was planning re the Moon and Mars, or why, and most were horrified by the cost, and bewildered why they basically just wanted to repeat Apollo. That wasn’t the case, you and I know that my dear readers, but Out There, in the real world, people just didn’t know, because NASA hadn’t told them. Constellation was a kind of fantasy space-based role playing game¬†for NASA employees and fans to enjoy, but no-one else.

Actually, sometimes I got the distinct impression that NASA itself wasn’t all that excited by Constellation, but that just have been me.

I always thought that, amongst space exploration enthusiasts, there was a huge white Constellation-shaped elephant in the room whenever the subject of “future exploration” was raised. It was as if everyone knew, but no-one would admit, that Constellation was too expensive, to ‘yesterday’, too badly thought out to ever work. But everyone kept their heads down, kept beavering away, and continued as if nothing was wrong.

When the first – and, we now know, only – Ares rocket blasted off on that test flight, the media got a bit breathless, but most people’s reaction was “Hmm, so what?” I remember thinking at the time, as I watched the launch live on TV at work, “Ok… but that’s the last time I’ll ever see THAT fly”, and I was right.

I know a lot of people had real hopes and dreams pinned on that rocket, and I know that many thousands of people at NASA and its contractors¬†worked themselves to the point of exhaustion to make and fly it, but I could never warm to the Ares I. I’m a self-confessed and defiantly proud shuttle fan, and Ares¬†always struck me as an ugly, shaky, glorified firework of a rocket, with an ugly, glorified squashed Coke can of a capsule stuck on the end, with astronauts crammed inside it like fat white sardines in a can, facing an inglorious, undignified splash down at the end of their mission. I’m always criticised for sticking up for the space shuttle – “It’s too expensive!”, “It’s unsafe!”, “It has a bad safety record!”, “It’s ancient technology!” but even if some of those things are true I don’t care, I still say that, compared to the graceful return to Earth of a shuttle – with its nose rising into the air, its wheels softly kissing the tarmac and its wings shining in the sunshine – the return to Earth of an Orion capsule would be a timid, almost pathetic way for astronauts to Come Home. As for Orion missions themselves, well, Orion-riding astronauts would have been¬†little more than spacesuited crash test dummies – certainly not Explorers! Explorers GO places, SEE and EXPERIENCE them, head for and reach their horizons. Explorers bring things home. CEV riding astronauts would be little more than tourists, or sightseers. We might just as well mount a camera on the capsule nose cone and launch them as pseudo-spaceprobes…

But Orion has gone now, dumped in the Big Obama Bin along with the Ares rockets, Altair lunar lander and everything else related to Constellation. In its place, a “new, focussed” space program that commits NASA to studying Earth more, to exploring the solar system with robots more, and to get¬†back to its glory days of inventing new technologies – propulsion systems, etc – which will, hopefully, drive forwards future exploration. The great news to come out of this whole mess is that the ISS’s future has been secured under the Obama spotlight, with a new commitment to expanding its capabilities and increasing the amount of science done on it. As for the business of getting people to and from the ISS, the plan is to encourage – and help fund – private companies to build their own spacecraft, capsules and spaceplanes, which would then carry ISS crews. This is a HUGE step towards the commercialisation of space, and might kick start a new era of “citizen spaceflight”. That’s the hope, anyway.

So, Constellation is dead, and many people won’t mourn its passing too deeply. What comes next will either begin a new golden age of commercial space travel, and reinvigorate NASA and help it get back to actually exploring again, or it will hit manned spaceflight’s PAUSE button for years and see us all imprisoned in low Earth orbit for a(nother) generation.

I’m fearful that it’s the latter, because NASA Administrator Charles Bolden recently said that the development of a heavy lift launcher – a huge rocket needed for interplanetary missions – would not bear fruit until “the 2020 – 2030 timeframe” Good. God. If it’s not ready until 2030 (and that probably means 2035 in real life, because these things NEVER stick to a schedule set down at the start) then that would mean several more years of testing… I can’t see a manned return to the Moon until, what, 2040? That would mean Mars expeditions maybe ten years later? For pity’s sake, I’ll be 85! Eighty ******* five!!!! I don’t want to have to wait that long to see people bounding across Mars! I don’t want to watch the first manned Mars expedition from my deathbed, like Dave Bowman at the end of 2001!!!! What the hell are they playing at? How did my generation lose not just the Moon, but Mars too?

This is a real fear for me now – that I will never see people on Mars. I know some people are of the opinion that this refocussing of NASA might actually mean we get to Mars quicker, and they may be right – but not for the reasons they have in mind. This might mean that people will reach Mars more quickly than we we were thinking – but they won’t be Americans, or Europeans, they’ll be Chinese. I really think that’s a possibility now. The Chinese space program is moving ahead steadily, and who’s to say that they won’t now set their sights on Mars and try to upstage the US?

Part of me thinks – as many people do – that it doesn’t matter which country puts the first people on Mars, as long as someone goes. But a bigger part of me – maybe a more selfish part, I don’t know – thinks that hell, yes, it does matter, because a “Western” Mars expedition would be much, much more open than a Chinese one. We’d get to see the crew selection and training. We’d get to follow the mission’s “behind the scenes” action.We’d have media briefings, press conferences galore. We’d see every single stage of the mission. We’d know the crew members inside out. We’d be able to “ride along” with them on their flight thanks to cameras inside the ship. We’d ride down to the surface with them, and be there with them during the landing itself, for every historic moment of it, and in the days and months that followed we’d have live footage daily, along with countless thousands of images to drool over. We’d be able to correspond openly with the astronauts, read their blogs, send them messages…

Would all that happen with a Chinese mission? I honestly don’t think so. So, while it would be great to see anyone on Mars before I die, I don’t want “seeing it” to involve just watching some “highlights” on TV and being drip fed photographs from it. I want the full, open, global experience, and with the greatest respect I genuinely don’t think we’d get that with a Chinese mission.

And you know what? I really don’t think Americans realise just how politically and culturally shocking it would be to see the next footprints on the Moon being made by a Chinese astronauts. Although other countries have space programs, the US’s space program has dominated the public’s consciousness because it’s a) so succesful, and b) so open and media friendly. Consequently, the US has “owned” space for generations. THEIR shuttles have had all the headlines; THEIR astronauts have been the ones on the TV news; THEIR spaceprobes have flitted around the solar system exploring Earth’s sister worlds, thrilling us back here on Earth with their photographs. Europe has a space program, and a space agency, but to be honest their PR and publicity efforts are so lousy that very few of the people I meet at my talks etc are even aware there IS a European Space Agency, never mind that it has sent probes to Venus and Mars and beyond.

So, in a few years time, when the shuttle fleet is retired, and the US becomes reliant on cadging and begging lifts up into orbit onboard Russian capsules, ouch, that’s gonna hurt America’s pride, I really think it will. But that hurt will be nothing, NOTHING compared to the hurt, then humiliation, then anger the US will feel if the next manned expedition to Luna is a Chinese one, and a Chinese astronaut steps down the ladder to plant a Chinese flag in the lunar dirt, and this picture is all over the net and on every TV news program and on every newspaper and magazine…

That will be like a slap across the face. That might actually be what kicks the US manned space program hard up the a** and makes it get its act together.

But that’s the future.¬†Where are we now? Well, we’re here…

No, really, we are: for the forseeable future no astronauts will go any further than the hull of the ISS. They’ll go out of the ISS airlock, crawl across and along its struts, trusses and gantries, going about their work professionally and thoroughly. But when they take a moment to grab a rest and take in the view, they’ll look out into the heavens and see the Moon, and Mars, and know that they will not be going there, as they had hoped and dreamed of doing. The ISS will almost certainly be as far as they will ever go…

Many people are reacting to the cancellation of Constellation by hurling abuse at Obama, accusing him of “Killing NASA” and “destroying the space program”. I can understand their hurt and frustration, especially those of them who work inside the space program and had very real hopes of helping build and fly Constellation missins, or even fly on them in person, but looking in from the outside I can’t really imagine what else Obama could have done. If he’d just said “Yep, fine, carry on”, he would have been guilty of hiding his head in the sand and not facing the reality of NASA being underfunded and having no chance of getting back to the Moon or going to Mars without more money. If he’d simply given them more money, enough to keep Constellation ticking along, he’d have been accused – and rightly so – of simply throwing good money after bad and ignoring the underlying problems and issues, namely that Constellation was too expensive and too blurry to actually work. If he’d gone all JFK on us, and, in a big, rousing¬†speech, announced he was giving¬†NASA a huge cash boost, enough to send a single, flag-and-footprints manned mission to Mars, he’d have been accused of ignoring the US’s sick economy and of throwing money away (space enthusiasts know that’s not the case, I know, but many people Out There don’t. He’d have been crucified.)

Obama’s decision to scrap Constellation doesn’t mean¬†he is “the next¬†JFK”, as some – including Buzz Aldrin – have suggested. Obama is no JFK. He simply doesn’t have the opportunity to be, not in the current political and economic climate; there’s just not the money available for him to send NASA off on a bold new adventure, nit that I think he has any desire to do that anyway. For all his bold talk and great speeches, I don’t think he’s a “space person”. Science, yes, absolutely. Space? Not so much. There’s no fire in his eyes when he talks about it.¬†So, Obama will never be able to do the Grand Thing, but this time¬†I think he did the Right Thing, as hard as it is for me, a lifelong space enthusiast and dreamer, to say that.

I can imagine Obama sitting at that big desk in the Oval Office, with a well-thumbed, coffee ring stained¬†copy of the report of the Augustine Commission in front of him and new NASA Administrator Charles Bolden sitting in one of the plush chairs there, and saying “Charlie, I’m sorry, but there’s no getting around it – Constellation’s dead. We can’t afford it, and you can’t build or fly it. It’s gone. It’ll p*** people off, I know, at NASA and up on the Hill, but I’ll take those punches because it’s time to get real, no more fantasy missions, no more messing about and hoping everything will turn out right in the end.¬†Everyone sees what a great job the rovers are doing on Mars, and loves the pictures from Cassini, but they can see the shuttle’s¬†become a glorified damned taxi. I’m going to give the privateers some money and let them¬†take care of getting your astronauts to the ISS, so you can¬†concentrate on pushing back that frontier. Now get out of here and go find us a real space program.”

Will that happen? Only time will tell. But this is a turning point for sure. Things Have Changed. How? We can’t know yet. This will either go down in history as the time when, after years of floundering around aimlessly, the human spaceflight side of¬†NASA actually found a direction and a purpose and got its act together – or it will be seen as the time when NASA turned its back on sending human explorers to the Moon, and Mars, and settled for a life in low Earth orbit onboard the ISS, waving sadly and jealously at the expeditions from China and other countries as they flew past.