Nobody gets to the moon by accident. If you’re a rocket scientist and know what you’re doing, Earth’s little sister ought not be such a challenging target. It’s huge — a whopping 2,155 mi. (3,468 km) across. It’s close — a mere 239,000 mi. (385,000 km) from Earthly launch pads. And if you take an as-the-crow-flies route, you can get there in just three days. That’s a walk to the 7-11 in a cosmos in which distances are measured in billions of light years.
And yet a trip to the moon is one that only a small handful of countries have made with robot ships and only one country has made with astronauts. As for Mars and the worlds beyond? You can get there alright — at least with unmanned probes — although it takes a lot of effort and a mountain of money and the United States is the only country which has had any success.
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But the U.S. has not been thinking much about manned space travel lately. This year will mark the 40th anniversary of the final Apollo mission, which was followed — far less thrillingly — by the space shuttle, a short-haul cosmic truck whose sole job was to make milk runs to low Earth orbit. Now even the shuttle is gone, leaving the U.S. is to hitch rides aboard Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft if it wants to get to space at all. While NASA and Washington promise American astronauts will return to space soon, the destination and the target date are being only vaguely defined — little more than “somewhere” and “sometime,” which, in the space game, typically turns into “nowhere” and “never.”
And yet the sad and spent U.S. and Russian manned programs are not the only ones out there. There’s China too.
Just last week, the Chinese government released a white paper detailing its plans for space in the years ahead — plans that were impressive for their candor, specificity and ambition. It was only in 2003 that the Chinese put their first astronaut in orbit. They followed in 2008 with a three-person mission that included a spacewalk, and followed that with an unmanned docking of two spacecraft in Earth orbit. This year, Beijing plans a manned docking. Meantime, two unmanned Chinese spacecraft have already orbited the moon, reconnoitering the surface for an unmanned lander that is planned for 2016 — and for manned missions sometime after that. And in case your response is, “So what? The U.S. did all this stuff before Nixon even went to China,” here’s what: The U.S. can’t rouse itself to do a lot of it anymore and, like it or not, China can.
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Manned space travel is a uniquely elective business. It’s very hard and very expensive, yes, but since the beginning of the 20th century, the basic tools have always been within — or just outside — our technical grasp. There was something exquisitely understated about President Kennedy’s 1962 speech in which he committed the U.S. to a manned lunar program. Kennedy didn’t say that we were destined to go to the moon; he didn’t even say it was essential we go. “We choose to go,” was all he said — a formulation that was at once both prosaic and powerful. We choose an entrée; we choose a tie; we choose to send human beings to another world, set them down on the surface and bring them home safely bearing extraterrestrial rocks and soil. Simple as that.
The follow-through, of course, is a wee bit harder than the choice, and in recent years, that’s where the U.S. has performed abysmally. We choose to go to Mars! the first President Bush declared in 1989, until his budget team crunched the numbers and put the likely price tag at $500 billion, whereupon the grand idea was quietly shelved. We choose to go back to the moon! the second President Bush announced in 2004 — until the plan ran over budget and over deadline, which is true of virtually any successful space program that’s even been attempted, but was more than enough justification for the Obama administration to cancel the plan.
NASA has become so adept at start-stop projects that savvy readers of space agency press releases can even handicap the odds of something actually getting off the ground simply by counting the conditionals used in the phrasing. The more references to what a planned spacecraft “would” do or the discoveries it “could” make, the less likely it’ll get past the dream stage. This does more than destroy NASA’s credibility and damage agency morale; it also costs money. More than $9 billion was spent developing the booster for the recently scrapped moon program — $9 billion we’re never getting back. And it’s not like we were chasing some cold fusion rainbow here. We were building a rocket — something we’re very, very good at doing. Either spend the cash and finish the job or don’t get started in the first place.
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The shift in political winds that leads to all this backing and forthing is one that all participatory democracies face — and one a locked-down, one-party system like China’s doesn’t. The political bosses who make policy today will still be in power many tomorrows hence, and that old stalwart of the communist system — the five-year plan — offers a time horizon that’s well-suited to the long-term commitment a space program requires.
America’s bi-annual electoral shake-ups — not to mention the current pre-K atmosphere in Washington — provides no such predictability. And yet the same system was in place in the Apollo era. From Sputnik, in 1957, to the last moon landing, in 1972, the U.S. had four presidents and eight different Congresses, and while the battles over the space budget could be pitched, the goal — going to the moon — remained unshakable. That bipartisan constancy is absent in the present-day political sandbox.
None of this is to say it would be worth trading a Constitutional democracy for a one-party dictatorship. It is to say that until we get our Apollo-era mojo back, we could do worse than rooting for China to go the places we won’t. If the next flag on the moon or the first one on Mars turns out to be American, great. But the odds of that are not good. Someone’s got to carry the even higher banner of spacefaring homo sapiens — which is a broader category and a more primal affiliation than nation. We once chose to carry it for the world. Now we choose not to. So, er, go China — and here’s hoping we follow your lead.
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