Tuesday, February 9, 2010

We're Done. Who's Next?

Last week the Obama administration announced the official end of the US manned space program. The "Constellation" project, which had just barely gotten off the ground with a fairly pointless four-fifths-stage rocket test last month, is now dead. When the last shuttle flight comes back down, sometime late this year, the United States is officially ending its career as a space-faring nation. Americans may still travel to the space station, but they'll do so as paying passengers aboard Russian Soyuz craft. More ambitious stuff, like returning to the moon or going on to Mars... forget it. We're done.

So, since the US has abandoned space, who might pick it up? Who's going to press on to the next lunar landing, the trip to Mars, the journeys to find out if anything lives in the vast ocean under the ice of Saturn's moon Enceladus? If it ain't us, then who?

Will the Private Sector pick up the slack? That's the administration's claim, but it strikes me that somebody's been overdosing on the Hopium(tm). Going into space, particularly going further than low earth orbit, is a long-term, costly, risky, and technically complex project that actually involves building stuff. Back in the days when Visionaries ran the big publicly-held companies, something of that magnitude might have been possible. But these days, most of the decision-making power in a publicly-held company resides with the Wall Street Herd, who are looking only for whatever creates a short-term spike in share prices (most typically the announcement of layoffs). And privately-held companies, while they're more immune to the Herd's influence, just aren't big enough to tackle much beyond low orbit. Elon Musk's SpaceX is doing some cool stuff, but his fortune is what, four or five billion. Nowhere near enough for a moon mission.

So what about the Russians? While they've been by far the most steady space-faring nation, having had the ability to put people in orbit continuously since about 1966, they've said they have no interest in the moon.

Which leaves the Chinese, who've also put a couple people into orbit. But China's historically not been an outward-looking country. There's the tale of the Chinese emperor who built a big fleet and sent it off to explore. When the admiral returned and reported there was nothing out there as magnificent as China, the emperor ordered the fleet sunk. Unless the moon turns out to be inhabited by aliens who'll produce export goods for even less than the Chinese workers do, it's unlikely that China will spend the money to land there.

So, in answer to the question "who will be the next to send people to the moon?" the most likely answer seems to be "nobody." Perhaps the moon race of the 1960s was just a Cold War aberration, something never to be repeated. Could be that a million years from now, when our species is long gone, replaced by either something we constructed as an obedient servant (oops) or perhaps by a More Perfect Cockroach, aliens will land on the moon. There, they'll find the names of four human beings, all that remains to mark our time on this planet.

One of those names, of course, will belong to Tricky Dick Nixon.

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