Looking back to two events in 2004, I would say that a new Moon race is developing. But it's going to be quite a different contest to the one we remember from the 1960s.
On 14 January 2004, US President George W. Bush, said, amongst other things: "we will undertake extended human missions to the Moon as early as 2015, with the goal of living and working there for increasingly extended periods of time." While on 21 June Mike Melvill became the first private pilot in space in Burt Rutan's SpaceShipOne.
At first blush, there is little connection between these events. But the relationship between them bears consideration.
What will be the ultimate fate of America's "Apollo Mk II"?
All these are possible futures, and we don't yet know which one will become reality.
Now look at an article, "The world after Bush", by Michael Lind, Fellow at the New America Foundation, in the current issue of Prospect magazine. He begins by looking ahead to the next US presidential election, after which: "Whether Republican or Democrat, the next president will not only inherit a number of crises, but will be in a considerably weaker position to deal with them." Later he adds: "In the second decade of the 21st century, reducing the federal budget deficit at a time when the retirement of the baby boomers is driving up government costs is likely to be the priority in Washington."
All of which is a reminder that any government is liable to be distracted from perceived discretionary activities such as spaceflight by more apparently pressing problems such as war, terrorism, global economic competition, and health and pensions funding. (To which we should now add, after the publication of the Stern Review: climate panic.)
So, supposing that NASA succeeds in creating, say, an International Moon Station on the model of the ISS, or come to that an International Mars Station, there is no guarantee that it will not suddenly be cancelled and the astronauts called home, and every likelihood that serious problems will arise on Earth which prompt widespread questioning of the value of the station and calls along the lines of: "wouldn't it be better to spend the money on ...?" (fighting terrorism, funding pensions, saving the environment, ...).
At which point, enter Burt Rutan, Richard Branson and the delectable Anousheh Ansari.
Virgin Galactic's avowed aim is "to get from suborbital, to orbit, to the Moon, to Mars and beyond". Meanwhile Space Adventures is already planning trips for private space explorers to follow the Zond mission profile of the 1960s. But the step from a spin around the Moon to an actual landing on the Moon is a very large one.
Think how much easier that step would be if there were already some lunar infrastructure -- landing craft in production and a functioning surface base manned at least part of the time.
In other words, the most efficient way to get lunar passenger spaceflight -- and commercial use of lunar resources -- started is to take advantage of some kind of manned Moon Station in the same way that orbital passenger spaceflight has taken advantage of Mir and now the ISS. Without that government leg-up, private visits to the lunar surface could be delayed a decade or more.
Although the first private visit to the ISS caused considerable grumbling from NASA, the US agency is now actively promoting commercial access to the station in order to free up its own funds for lunar exploration.
The race I see developing is therefore not a race between competitors. It is rather a race for private passenger spaceflight to catch up with government before the latter loses its focus and abandons the Moon again.
When NASA establishes any sort of lunar surface base, no matter how flimsy, private enterprise must be ready to access it. In a nutshell, a future Richard Branson needs to get to the Moon before a future Gene Cernan leaves it again.
With any luck, about the time that private spacelines are ready to do that, NASA may be planning manned Mars exploration and looking for some way to extricate itself from its lunar commitments. Or it may have received orders from above to slash its spending on all forms of manned spaceflight. If either of these happens, it will boost commercial lunar access, and this is what we should hope for.
According to a recent Spaceflight report (October), the Russian space agency Roskosmos has decided not to go ahead with developing its proposed "reusable" spaceplane Kliper, as it does not have the funds to do so.
This is excellent news.
Kliper would have been even less reusable than the Space Shuttle. It would have been launched on a totally expendable rocket (first a Soyuz derivative called Onega was proposed, then the proven Ukrainian-built launcher Zenit). Half of the spacecraft itself would have been destroyed on every reentry. It was designed to be about as "reusable" as a 747 which crosses the Atlantic and is dumped in the sea, only the crew cockpit surviving to land in New York.
It was a blatant attempt to preserve high-cost access to orbit and delay the advent of a truly economic and reusable system. ESA was wise to avoid getting entangled with it.
British spaceplane engineers have been offering far better designs for over twenty years. It's about time that someone in the space agencies sat up and took notice.
The November issue of the British political and social monthly magazine Prospect carries an article by academic Eric Kaufmann claiming that secularism in Europe is in decline. Europe, in his view, is on track to develop a more American model of modernity, i.e. with increasingly widespread moderate religious belief.
To those of us who identify progress with a critical attitude to the traditional beliefs of pre-industrial societies, and with an increasing consciousness of our cosmic environment and of the unity of mankind, Kaufmann's thesis is worrying.
The Editor, David Goodhart, summed it up in his foreword to the same issue: "Secular humanism has conspicuously failed to create an alternative system of belief to organised religion, and in the process seems to have failed to give people sufficient reasons for having babies."
Obviously, this is absolutely untrue. The Russian visionary Tsiolkovsky put it in a nutshell: "Zemlja -- kolybel' Chelovechestva, no nelzja vechno zhit' v kolybeli" ("The Earth is the cradle of Mankind, but one cannot live in the cradle forever" -- thank you, Konstantin Milyayev, for the original Russian of this famous quote). To which we might add, on the subject of having babies, that we have a whole planetary system to fill with our descendants.
Over the next decade or two, with growing numbers of people visiting low Earth orbit and the Moon, the worldview expressed by Tsiolkovsky will receive ever greater prominence.
Our task is to convince the world that this astronautical vision of the universe has greater relevance, emotional meaning, intellectual coherence, environmental sustainability and social applicability than the competing visions hatched during the infancy of mankind. Surely this should not be too difficult?
The magazine can be contacted at: "Prospect Magazine" (letters--at--prospect-magazine.co.uk).
On 26 October, Dr David Williams, the recently appointed Director-General of the British National Space Centre, spoke to a public meeting at the Royal Aeronautical Society. Thanks are due to Pat Norris and his colleagues in the RAeS Space Group for organising this meeting.
In Dr Williams's view, Britain in space has three objectives: science (in which, he told us, the UK is rated second only to America); the public good, in other words sustainable improvements in the quality of life; and wealth creation.
Concerning science, he said little about Britain's most popular space science project ever. Beagle 2 did not register on his radar screen.
An Earth scientist by training, and one concerned about possible climate change on this planet, he was naturally more interested in the upcoming European Global Monitoring for Environment and Security (GMES) programme, and anxious to mould it to British priorities (a practical Earth observation service, rather than the technology development emphasis preferred by some other European countries).
On wealth creation, he quoted Chancellor Gordon Brown: "High-value-added, high-technology, highly skilled science-driven products and services are the key to wealth creation in the future."
Under sharply focused questioning from Alan Bond, Dr Williams proved himself unwilling to recognise that economical access to space would create future wealth: "Nobody's made an adequate case that existing launchers are inadequate." Alan Bond and many others have of course been making that case for over 20 years. When Dr Williams asked for an economic model of low-cost spaceflight, Alan Bond reminded the meeting that that model had been provided long ago.
But David Ashford got his foot in the door, when Dr Williams responded to his question with a hint that the BNSC might be able to offer technology support to a private space tourism venture, provided that any proposed arrangement worked within existing DTI support mechanisms.
The discussion about the new British space strategy within the BNSC has been slightly deferred, and is now to start this month and continue until March 2007. A name for the newly merged PPARC and CCLRC will be announced in 07. An office of climate change is also about to be set up, and it should administer Britain's share of GMES.
Dr Williams mentioned that a debate has also begun in the European Space Agency about its own future. For the first time in 30 years ESA is looking at its structure, and is now asking whether it should become an agency of the EU.
In reply to a question from Nick Spall, calling for a change in government policy so that Britain could rejoin ESA's astronaut corps, Dr Williams made the point that it is not the job of the research councils to educate the country, so if the argument for a British astronaut is based on educational inspiration to counter the sorry state of the science graduation figures, then the money for it should come from the educational budget (as your editor suggested in AE 11(1)). Whether the Department of Education (budget for 2006-07: £73 billion) has enough spare cash for an astronaut or two is another question. Which brings us back to something said by Alan Bond earlier: "If the transportation is adequate then the manned issue goes away."
Defending himself from Jerry Stone's list of which European countries had astronauts, "even Belgium", Dr Williams made an important general point: spending on space is seen in government circles as discretionary, not mandatory. Clearly, although nobody said so explicitly, there were many people at the meeting who regarded space as being a lot more important than that.
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