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THE FIRST MAN ON MARS

In the movies, all the spacemen are Americans, but that’s just because Hollywood makes the movies. In the real world, the United States of America is giving up on space, although it is trying hard to conceal its retreat. Recently, three Americans with a special status (they have all commanded missions to the Moon) made their dismay public.

In an open letter, Neil Armstrong, the first human being to walk on the Moon, Jim Lovell, commander of Apollo 13, and Eugene Cernan, commander of Apollo 17, condemned Barack Obama’s plans for the Nasa as the beginning of a “long downhill slide to mediocrity” for the US.

The letter was timed to coincide with Obama’s visit to Cape Canaveral to defend his new policy, which abandons the goal of returning to the Moon by 2020, or indeed ever. Obama insists that this sacrifice will allow the US to pursue a more ambitious goal, but his plan to send Americans to Mars by the late 2030s has the distinct political advantage of not needing heavy investment while he is still in office — even if he wins a second term.

The “Constellation” programme that he scrapped had two goals. One was to replace the ageing shuttle fleet for delivering people and cargo to near-Earth orbits. The other was to give the US the big rockets it would need to meet George W. Bush’s target of establishing a permanent American base on the Moon by 2020 where rockets would be assembled to explore the solar system. That programme’s timetable was slipping, and would have slipped further. It would have ended up costing a lot: $108 billion by 2020, as much as the Pentagon spends in three months, with the possibility that it would have ended up costing one or two more months’ worth of the defence budget. But it would have kept the US in the game. Obama’s plan only pretends to.

He says all the right things. He talked about a manned mission to some asteroid beyond the Moon by 2025, and another that will orbit Mars for some months in the mid-2030s; “and a landing on Mars will follow.”

Only a hitch-hiker

Those are indeed ambitious goals, and they would require heavy-lift rockets that do not yet exist. But the “vigorous new technology development” programme that might lead to those rockets will get only $600 million annually for the next five years, and actual work on building such rockets would probably not begin until 2015.

In the meantime, and presumably for years after Obama leaves office in 2016 (should he be re-elected in 2012), the US will have no vehicle capable of putting astronauts into orbit. It will be able to buy passenger space on Russian rockets or on the rapidly-developing Chinese manned vehicles or maybe by 2015 even on Indian rockets. But it will essentially be a hitch-hiker on other countries’ space programmes. Obama suggests that this embarrassment will be avoided because private enterprise will come up with cheap and efficient “space taxis” that can deliver people and cargo to the International Space Station once in a while. And he’s going to invest $6 billion in these private companies over the next five years.

No doubt they will get various vehicles up there, but if they can build something by 2020 that can lift as much as the ancient shuttles into a comparable orbit, let alone something bigger that can go higher, I will eat my hat. Space technology eats up capital almost as fast as weapons technology, and these entrepreneurs have no more than tens of billions at most.

So for the next decade at least, the US will be an also-ran in space, while new space powers forge rapidly ahead. Even if a subsequent administration decides to get back in the race, it will find it almost impossible to catch up. Which is why the first man on Mars will probably be Chinese or Indian, not American.

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