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So we’re not going back to the moon.

May 21, 2010

Not yet.

President Barack Obama cut the Constellation program, the program aimed at returning humans to the moon, out of NASA’s budget.

During his election campaign, Obama said he supported our return to the moon — an effort started by his predecessor, former President George W. Bush. But campaign promises are one thing and reality another and its time Obama faced up to a few problems with his plan.

While adding $5.9 billion to the space agency’s funding over the next five years, the White House has decided that Constellation is too expensive to continue.

The Ares I rocket launcher, intended as a replacement for the aging space shuttle, has been scrapped. Although several billion dollars have already been spent on Ares I, the program was seriously over budget and faced with severe technical problems.

NASA has been ordered to concentrate instead on developing a simpler, but perhaps more useful, heavy-lift booster — a sort of workhorse truck for lifting heavy cargos into orbit.

The space shuttle will be retired, possibly before the end of this year. Funding to support the International Space Station will be increased.

But with the space shuttle retired and no new NASA booster available, how will American astronauts get to and from the ISS?

The U.S. could buy seats on Russian spacecraft or, later, Chinese. Or NASA could turn to private American companies to carry personnel and cargo to the ISS.

Obama wants private enterprise to step in. Many in Congress and inside NASA are adamantly against such “outsourcing.”

Meanwhile, George W. Bush’s Space Development Initiative is dead. The U.S. has no program to return humans to the moon, to build permanent bases there and eventually to send human explorers to Mars. This is ironic, because China and possibly Russia are both moving toward human lunar landings.

Space enthusiasts (like me) dearly want to return humans to the moon and build a permanent presence there. Partially this is because of the sheer adventure of exploring the frontier. Partially it’s because scientific studies of the moon can help us understand better the origins of our own world, and the chances for finding other worlds like Earth among the stars.

But these are the conditions that prevail.

But they won’t prevail forever.

In the years to come, scientific and industrial research conducted in the near-zero gravity of the International Space Station will open new possibilities for manufacturing metal alloys, electronics systems, pharmaceuticals and other products in space. Mammoth solar-power satellites will be built in orbit to supply gigawatts of pollution-free electrical power to the ground 24/7.

Orbital industry and construction will grow, slowly at first. One of its major problems will be the cost of lifting construction materials from Earth.

But there’s the moon, with plenty of silicon, titanium, oxygen, iron and other valuable raw materials spread across its surface. They could be scooped up with bulldozers and ferried to Earth orbit for twenty-some times less expense than lifting the same tonnage of materials from Earth.

We’ll return to the moon, we have a strong economic reason to do so. In a good cause there are no failures, only delays.

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