If we can put a man on the moon, Americans used to say, we ought to be able to solve our current problems. So the question of whether the US can still put a man on the moon matters a lot to national morale. Barack Obama’s administration this week released a budget that would scrap Nasa’s Constellation programme. That plan, announced by George W. Bush after the crash of the space shuttle Columbia in 2003, aimed to send US astronauts to the moon by the year 2020. It has failed.

The new budget dresses up the demise of Constellation as opening the way to “a bold new course for human space flight”, a more modern, “21st-century” space programme. But the bravado is that of a dog barking louder as he backs away from a fight. There is no indication of any alternative destination for manned space missions. Richard Shelby, the Republican senator from Alabama, called the Nasa budget a “death march for the future of US human spaceflight”.

It is an odd time to give up on lunar exploration. India, China and Japan have run unmanned lunar missions in the past half-decade. Advances in instrumentation have made these flights scientifically rewarding. Last year, a Nasa instrument mounted on the Indian spacecraft Chandrayaan-1 discovered (spectroscopically) water on the moon, a discovery confirmed (physically) last autumn by a Nasa satellite. Is the US renouncing the moon because it has lost the inclination, lost the ability, or both?

The decision was based on the findings of the Human Spaceflight Plans Committee, appointed by the president last year. Headed by Norman Augustine, former chief executive of Lockheed Martin, the group reported last August that Nasa was on an “unsustainable trajectory”. Constellation was “not executable”. The main problem was money. It would take an extra $3bn (£2bn, €2bn) a year to get astronauts to the moon by the mid-2020s; under present budgets, a moon visit was unlikely before the 2030s.

The US was once willing to spend big money in space. In the 1960s, Nasa took up almost 5 per cent of the federal budget. Constellation’s fate illustrates how, in late-stage welfare states, transfer payments crowd out big works projects. Since there are no lobbyists from outer space, space flight is hard to defend politically in the best of times. The original Apollo programme ended in the early 1970s so the country could address pressing domestic problems. In recent years the competing priority has been tax cuts, wine tastings and jacuzzis.

For decades Nasa has been a powerful driver of US research and development. Mr Obama’s budget hints that such research will no longer be a by-product but the agency’s raison d’être. Monitoring climate change and developing “green aviation” would be a bigger part of Nasa’s mission. So would support for the international space station, with private US companies eventually used to shuttle astronauts back and forth. Research would be done on a number of innovative technologies, such as refuelling in space. These new tasks are interesting in theory. It is not clear that they justify a space programme in practice.

Nasa has always had two particular strengths as a research programme. First, goals that motivated and inspired people. Second, a semi-explicit military dimension that impresses itself on pragmatic voters. Space technologies tend to be secretive. The US still prohibits the sharing of most space technology with China. There is a limit to how effective private enterprises can be at carrying out tasks of national defence. The US space agenda should not be wholly at the mercy of corporations.

Privatisation brings delicate political questions, too. Among the more prominent private spaceship companies are Blue Origin, run by Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon.com; Space Exploration Technologies, run by PayPal founder Elon Musk, which has received a $1.6bn contract from Nasa; and Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic. The government must take care to avoid simply moving its big investments from one set of public sector fat cats to another set of private sector ones.

Nasa rose in the climate of cold war superpower rivalry. The question is whether you should have the same programme under different conditions. In his plans for space, as in his plans for most things, Mr Obama puts – for a US president – a lot of faith in international co-operation. Many will rejoice to see a complacent bureaucracy, built for the golden age of the military industrial complex, cut down to size. But there are potential pitfalls that explain why explicitly scaling back Nasa’s space exploration has not been attempted until now. The debate over Nasa bears some resemblance to the debate over Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent: whether it is efficient or not, if you do not maintain such a programme, you will lose the skills that enable you to have one at all.

That is what makes the debate over Constellation symbolic. The decision to abandon moon exploration has “decline” written all over it. Americans often profess astonishment that the Chinese of 600 years ago failed to take full advantage of their technological superiority. They invented gunpowder and, on the eve of Columbus’s discovery of America, their ocean-going vessels were bigger and more seaworthy than Europe’s. Perhaps now the process by which an innovative civilisation invents technologies that it is unable to exploit will be easier to explain. The failure of the latest US moon programme is a small disappointment for national pride, but it is one giant leap for historical understanding.

The writer is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard
More columns at www.ft.com/christophercaldwell

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