Ben Bova: To the moon and beyond

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So we’re not going back to the moon.

Not yet.

Two weeks ago 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, budget realities another.

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 sace 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.”

The politicians and bureaucrats view private launch services with considerable trepidation. Politicians fear the loss of NASA jobs in their states, which will increase unemployment problems that are already serious. NASA bureaucrats fear loss of control.

NASA already has billion-dollar contracts with two private companies, Orbital Sciences Inc. and Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX), which was founded by Internet entrepreneur Elon Musk. Both are developing launch vehicles intended to fly to and from the ISS.

Apparently the bureaucrats inside the space agency were content with having these firms under contract, but view with alarm the idea of having NASA buy launching services from them.

But with the space shuttle gone and Ares I canceled, their choice is either to buy transportation from Russia or other foreign agencies, or to turn the job over to private enterprise.

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 the hard fact is that returning to the moon lacks a firm economic motive. In an economy staggering from high unemployment, massive deficit spending, and inevitable tax increases, how can any leader justify spending billions on building permanent bases on the moon?

As the great Jimmy Durante used to say, “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 when we have a strong economic reason to do so. In a good cause there are no failures, only delays.

Ben Bova, a Naples resident, is the author of more than 120 books, including “Able One,” a high-tech thriller. Bova’s Web site address is www.benbova.com

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