New Moon Rising: America Abandons Manned Lunar Missions, India Embraces Them
Space exploration — much like the great European ocean explorations of the 15th through 18th centuries — has always been as much about geopolitical ambitions as about scientific discovery. The mid-20th Century race to put men into orbit and then to leave footprints on the surface of the moon was driven largely by the Cold War and the battle for prestige between the United States and the Soviet Union (this is all chronicled in a wonderful Pulitzer Prize-winning history, The Heavens and The Earth, by a former professor of mine, Walter McDougall.)
So it says quite a lot about current geopolitics that just as the United States has decided it will abandon its publicly-funded effort to put men back on the moon, India has announced that it might have a manned lunar mission as early as 2016 (although at the moment, it has only committed itself to putting two Indian astronauts into low Earth orbit that year.) China has already said it plans to have a manned moon shot by 2020.
Welcome to the new multipolar world, one where American power is on the wane, while new great powers, such as India and China, are rapidly on the rise. It is also a world characterized by “coopetition” and space is a great example of this. Great powers cooperate on some space efforts (the International Space Station or probes such as Chandrayaan-1, a unmanned moon explorer that was built and launched by India but carried scientific instruments designed by NASA as well as scientists in the UK, Germany, Sweden and Bulgaria) and yet, at the same time, compete fiercely for bragging rights on other space missions (so far the Indian and Chinese manned space flights seem to be wholly national projects.) And maybe more than bragging rights if you look at the increasing militarization of space by the U.S., Russia and China.
But as Ben Sandilands at the Australian blog Crickey points out, this new world order may be tough for Americans to come to terms with. Americans once took great pride in their space program, which was seen as a representative of many of the values they believed made their nation great: its ingenuity, its resourcefulness, its ability to think big, to conquer nature (an American value since the first settlers eked out an existence in a forbidding wilderness), and to ever be at the cutting edge of technological progress. Most importantly, it was evidence that America was a country that could achieve monumental, even seemingly impossible, things if it could put its collective mind to the task. Further, it was a nation that believed it was worth spending national treasure to prove such a proposition. As President John F. Kennedy famously said in the 1962 Rice University speech in which he affirmed that America would seek to put a man on the moon by the close of the 1960s (a decision he had actually committed the U.S. to in May 1961):
We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.
It is for these reasons that I regard the decision last year to shift our efforts in space from low to high gear as among the most important decisions that will be made during my incumbency in the office of the Presidency.
I wonder how President Obama regards his decision, leaked to the press last week, to shift America’s current efforts in space back into low gear? In fact, some would say that Obama has actually put the car in neutral, or even turned off the engine altogether.
As part of his effort to rein in non-essential government spending, Obama is proposing killing off the Constellation Project. This was President George W. Bush’s ambitious effort to send Americans back to the moon by 2020. The project, on which $9 billion has been spent since 2004, had run into trouble, with cost overruns in the program to develop the Ares I and Ares V rockets, the Orion capsule that would sit atop them and a moon lander dubbed Altair. A presidential panel found that the project was likely to miss its goal of returning Americans to the moon by at least eight years.
Obama — who is actually increasing NASA’s overall budget — instead wants to put a heavier emphasis on commercializing space flight, with NASA helping private companies develop a kind of space taxi that would carry crews to and from the International Space Station. It also wants private companies to fund the development of the new moon rockets and landers, with the idea being that they would recoup these costs from eventual contracts to carry NASA astronauts — as well as paying civilians or corporate payloads.
It is as the Crickey blogger notes, an interesting role reversal: here you privatization being proposed as the solution by a Democrat, Obama, to replace a Big Government program that had been proposed by a supposedly small government Republican, Bush.
But it is also a sign of the times: the U.S. government can no longer afford to dream as big as it once did. Instead, it looks to private businesses — many of them headquartered in America and employing many Americans, but increasingly global in character — to carry efforts forward. But the priorities of private business may not always coincide exactly with America’s national interest.
It is hard not to read Obama’s decision to have NASA exit the business of building rockets and vehicles for manned space flight as another sign of American decline from its mid-20th Century zenith. In those years, America, as Kennedy put it, did things that were hard — and not just in space. It didn’t just put a man on the moon, it also passed landmark civil rights legislation and Medicare, a single-payer government health insurance scheme. Today, health care reform in America looks like it is about to become another victim of political gridlock and partisanship. And a global agreement to stem climate change looks like it may fail, in large part because the United States refuses to commit itself to doing something that is hard. In fact, as Tom Friedman likes to point out, America won’t even do things that are easy — like increase the tax on gasoline or mandate higher fuel economy standards.
Meanwhile you have emerging nations such as China and India which still see space exploration as a critical national project and apparently — thanks to GDP growth in excess of 7% — feel they have the money to spend on it. Now, some of these countries benefit from low labor and manufacturing costs. For instance, India’s manned space mission is projected to cost less than $3 billion — less than a third of what NASA has already spent on the soon-to-be scrapped Constellation Project. And India is already a world leader in providing low cost launch services for satellites produced elsewhere. So perhaps it is best to outsource the “hardware” part of space exploration to these low cost providers. But as one finds with business outsourcing, the outsourcers have a sneaky way of working their way “up the value chain,” and suddenly you turn around and your outsourced provider is actually your competitor — and they are eating your lunch.
It should also be noted that India may have a lot of obstacles to overcome to fulfill its own manned space flight ambitions. Its Chandrayaan-1 space probe suffered a catastrophic malfunction 312 days into its mission, having completed less than half of its intended service life of two years. And, as I have written in this space before, one can certainly debate the wisdom of a country where the majority of the population is miserably poor — without access to clean drinking water or a toilet — spending billions to put people on the moon.
But it is also true that America was once a nation that thought it had the resources to both solve problems at home as well as go to the moon. It was a country that aspired to do things precisely because they were hard. Now it seems content to leave the hard work to others, like India.
**In response to the comments from “George” below, thank you for pointing out the error about Chandrayaan-1′s catastrophic failure. I have updated that information above. Still, the space craft survived for less than half of its intended service life. And while ISRO, the Indian space agency, claims the craft completed 95% of its intended mission in that time period, the agency was extremely slow to acknowledge that the probe had in fact ceased operating properly, at first denying reports of a catastrophic malfunction, only to confirm them days later.
Also, in response to Greg, my statement about poverty in India was just that — a statement of fact, not a jab. Some here in India wish the world would stop focusing on the country’s poor but the sad fact remains that there are more people living in poverty in India than in all of sub-Saharan Africa. And India’s leaders haven’t forgotten this fact. They are keenly aware of the need to lift hundreds of millions of Indians out of poverty. In this context, I think it is perfectly legitimate to question India’s spending priorities. And as I hope was clear from my statements about America, I don’t think it is necessarily an either/or proposition (America spent money on both the space race and on combating poverty during the 1960s) but I do think it is a very legitimate question to raise and I will not be ashamed for raising it.
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