Moon shot

The cancelling of Project Constellation — NASA’s plan to return astronauts to the moon — by President Obama wasn’t a surprise. With the US strapped for cash following the bail-outs of last year and the continuing economic slowdown, the legacy project from the Bush adminsitration was always going to be a target for cuts.

Obama’s comments on the project are a stinging rebuke for NASA’s engineers, though — never mind behind schedule and over budget, but lacking in innovation? That’s got to hurt.

The cut isn’t quite what it seems, though. Obama commissioned a report last year into NASA’s strategy, and was advised to let the private sector find more cost-effective ways of launching astronauts into low Earth orbit, while NASA itself concentrated on developing more efficient propulsion systems for future manned missions to Mars. The lack of emphasis on the moon will probably please such luminaries as Apollo 11’s Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins, who have been calling for missions to Mars, rather than retracing their steps, for the past few years (the reclusive Neil Armstrong is characteristically silent on the subject).

This might even represent an opportunity for Europe, whose space researchers have a good record for innovation on a tighter budget than NASA’s. Although the European Union members’ coffers are as empty as America’s, the Ariane project is thriving, and the satellite launching business doing well; plans to crew-rate the new ‘space truck’, developed to supply the International Space Station, could be accelerated, with the heavy-lift Ariane 5 as the launcher. After relying on NASA for a lift in the Shuttle for years, maybe it’s about time the tables were turned.

There’s even a UK outside bet: Reaction Engines, the company founded by veterans of Rolls-Royce’s HOTOL spaceplane project and Britain’s Black Knight rocketry effort, is developing hybrid rocket/SCRAMjet engines for a new spaceplane, called Skylon. Although it’s some way from use – the team is still building functional models of the crucial fuel-cooling system – it could form the basis for a new generation of European launchers.

The moon is, of course, still on the manned spaceflight agenda. It’s highly unlikely that China will abandon its plans for a moon mission; it’s probably the only country that can still afford it, and the symbolic value of men on the moon has lost none of its potency. India, with its policy of developing its own launchers to avoid being dependent on other nations, may also still be in the running.

Of course, if Obama is looking for a low-cost flight provider, maybe he could have a chat to Virgin Galactic. Or perhaps RyanAir might consider branching out. But charging the astronauts extra for lunch and to go to the loo might put a crimp on the budget.

Stuart Nathan

Special Projects Editor