Donald MacInnes: By Jupiter, why on Earth can't we head back to the Moon?

In The Red

Promise you won't look to me for guidance through the swamps of personal finance. Like Pooh, I am a bear of very little brain, so much so that when I started writing this column, I had to promise not to deal in specifics.

"Stick to the gags, MacInnes," said the boss. "No one wants your opinion on actual, you know... money stuff."

Nevertheless, two things happened this week which force me to swap my clown shoes for an accountant's brogues.

The first was the appearance in the sky of Jupiter and Venus.

"Gosh," I thought, as I stared at them shining. "Space: it's, like, the final frontier, or something."

The second was a dream I had, the oddness of which was certainly due to my being held in the clammy talons of food poisoning.

I can't remember the actual plotline of the dream, but the denouement involved the singer Katie Melua playing table tennis with an astronaut on the surface of the Moon.

Ms Melua seemed to be holding her own, but the final score of this lunar ping-pong is not the issue. However, its location – and my sighting of those two planets – reminded me how much I wish those with their hands on the budgets of the major nations gave two hoots about space travel.

Apparently it's too expensive. In this Earthly recession there can, it seems, be no justification for spending the kind of cash required to return to the Moon and use it as a staging post from which to launch a voyage to Mars.

Last year, according to figures from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, the US spent a shade under $700bn (£442.02bn) on its military. Since 2001, the country which gave us the gallant pioneers of the Mercury programme, Neil Armstrong's perpetual shoeprint and the Hanksian heroics of Apollo 13, has spent $487bn on the Afghanistan war; $123bn last year alone. Nasa gets $19bn a year. This rocket good, that rocket bad. Genius.

President Barack Obama seems to agree that spending even a sliver of this money on deep-space exploration is a frippery. While there are plans to send unmanned craft to the Moon, it's not backed with the kind of "Get it done" moxy triggered by Kennedy in 1961, when he double-dared Nasa to land on the Moon before the decade was out.

They got it done (just) and, during the Moon landing year, 1969, the space programme cost $4.25bn, some 2.3 per cent of the budget, which doesn't really seem an inordinate commitment to timeless heroism.

Today, the space programme accounts for about 0.5 per cent of the US budget. To me this seems fiscal criminality. But, as I said, I'm no expert.

d.macinnes@independent.co.uk

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