Monday, 1 February 2010

Tumbling Constellations

The request by President Obama for Congress to squash NASA's Constellation programme - the return to the moon by 2020 - comes as no surprise in these financially straitened times. Congress may, of course, deny the President's request, since around 30,000 jobs are tied to the programme. However, the likelihood is that it could be many decades before any American sets foot on the moon again.

This saddens me. While never universal, the spirit of hope, excitement and willingness to battle technological challenges that spurred America to the moon in the 60s was magical. it briefly united the world in awe and wonder. Equally rapidly, the optimism vanished into the mire of Vietnam, civil unrest, Nixon's Watergate folly and a global oil crisis. The quest for technological supremacy has long gone. Indeed, the unique crystallisation of public, political and media will, underpinned by technological white heat that delivered Apollo has gone for ever. Spurred by the Cold War contest, the alignment of political ambition with engineering advancement which delivered the State-technocracy of the space programme from Mercury through Gemini to Apollo will never be repeated.

Does NASA have a future? Probably, but not as the sometimes bellicose, often defensive and always byzantine keeper of the manned spaceflight flame. Hopefully it will emerge as the catalyst for a new era: a commercial space race. But one wonders if it has the ability or even appetite for such as change?

Strangely, this loss of the frontier spirit in America may spur on a new generation of lunar explorers - what are the chances of a Chinese expedition to the moon in the next decade?

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