By Whitehouse, David
New Statesman (1996) , Vol. 131, No. 4588
The early decades of the space age were dominated by the Americans and the Russians. Will their near-monopoly continue?
The American space programme is at a crossroads. Since 1972, no American astronaut has ventured more than 200 miles away from Earth's surface.
America's old direction was as clear as it was ambitious: win the space race; beat the Soviet Union to the moon; prove American technical prowess was more than a match for communism. In the post-Apollo world, NASA has been groping for a way of restoring that sense of purpose, but it hasn't come close to articulating another vision that can be as clearly understood and embraced by the public.
After the Apollo missions, NASA started looking downward and inward, instead of upward and outward.
Its major focus became what space could do for people on Earth: through environmental monitoring, for example, or technological spin-offs, or the kind of medical research that space missions prompt.
To some, with hindsight, these now seem specious justifications for a generation too timid to say simply: "Let's see what's out there."
NASA's budget doubled from 1981 to 1992, during the Reagan and Bush years, but NASA produced little to show for it. There was a sense that, if NASA could keep the budget doubling, it could solve all its problems. But the fundamental questions -- where to and why? -- were never asked. No bold new space mission marked the Clinton era, and the signs are that none will mark the younger Bush era either.
There has been only one candidate for a new vision. In 1989, on the 20th anniversary of the first Apollo moon landing, the elder President Bush announced plans for a manned mission to Mars that would also send astronauts back to the moon. But the $400bn price tag made it dead on arrival on Capitol Hill.
Mars is clearly the most important planet to explore. What we have learnt about it in recent years has been extraordinary, and the existence of life there is a real possibility. But the sheer expense virtually rules out a manned mission. Better, some say, to establish a base on the moon.
Meanwhile, the $30bn International Space Station project risks losing its scientific and political rationale. Plans for the further development of the station are on hold for the next two years while NASA comes to grips with a $4bn projected cost overrun.
The cancellation last year of a crew-return vehicle and two station modules froze the number of residents at three, enough to maintain the station but not enough to do much else.
The station costs so much that the Americans have mortgaged much of their future space programme to it. But growing discontent from America's partners has led to the possibility that they will cease adding to it and leave it as it is, hoping that it won't cost as much as was once planned.
Many researchers have fought for years to switch NASA's priorities from human spaceflight to unmanned interplanetary probes and space-based telescopes. Such a switch would not only save money; it would also, almost certainly, yield far greater science dividends, they say.
Most of NASA's greatest triumphs since Apollo have come from such missions: the Voyager spacecraft to the outer planets, Pathfinder to Mars, the Hubble Space Telescope. Other unmanned missions have found indications of water on Mars as well as on Europa, a moon of Jupiter, suggesting the possibility of extraterrestrial life. For the future, nuclear-powered probes are being considered: though politically controversial, they could make future exploration far more cost-effective and productive.
Then there is Russia. In March last year, it experienced the ignominy of watching its Mir space station burn up in Earth's atmosphere and fall into the Pacific Ocean for lack of a few tens of millions of dollars, with no replacement in sight. …