Space flight: A giant step backwards

Faced with the astronomical cost of space flight, the US government has decided to stop funding further lunar missions. It's a short-sighted move, says David Whitehouse – the Moon has so much more to teach us

There is a moment in the film Apollo 13 when Tom Hanks, portraying astronaut Jim Lovell, surveys his crippled spacecraft, turns to his colleagues and says, "We just lost the Moon."

Forty years after that space mission, the United States has done the same thing, only this time they didn't lose it by accident: the government has given up on missions to the Moon. In so doing, they have turned their back on the most important strategically placed object in the solar system and left it open for others.

It's a situation that the first man on the Moon, Neil Armstrong, now 79, does not like. Not taken to self-promotion, there is no razzamatazz or commercial exploitation of his unique place in history. He keeps his own counsel and doesn't dance with the stars. Yet he, and 26 other heroes and legends of the US space effort, wrote an open letter to President Obama asking him to think again about the Moon decision. As well as Armstrong, it was signed by Jim Lovell and Fred Haise, the other surviving member of the crew of Apollo 13, Gene Cernan, the last man to walk on the Moon, Frank Borman, commander of the first crew ever to leave Earth-orbit, and many more.

Until President Bush unveiled the return to the Moon in 2005 – with the Constellation programme – the United States' policy was lost in space. Just a year earlier, Space Shuttle Columbia had disintegrated upon re-entry; it was an old vehicle and its replacement had been delayed and mismanaged. It was clear that a new vision was needed. Studies were carried out, and very early on in the deliberations the Moon loomed large as the obvious destination.

The mistakes of the Space Shuttle were not to be repeated. Crew and cargo would be launched on separate rockets, and the manned one would have an escape tower in case of an emergency – something technically impossible for the Space Shuttle. Nine billion dollars were spent, flight components and infrastructure were assembled. After the Ares-1 manned rocket became operational, the only major components that were different for the heavy-lift Ares 5 rocket were larger fuel tanks. But the project was underfunded.

Last December, a panel established by the Obama administration under veteran space manager Norm Augustine looked at the various options for the future and concluded that the Constellation program had become untenable unless billions of extra dollars were found. Some time later Obama scrapped Constellation but didn't put anything in its place – until his speech last month at the Kennedy Space Centre in Florida.

Of the Moon he said, "We've been there. Buzz has been there." In its place there was to be a manned mission to an asteroid in 2025, and a Mars orbital flight 10 years later. A new heavy-lift rocket would also be built. But in a statement issued after Obama's speech, the aerospace company Boeing said, "A plan that includes a heavy-lift vehicle would enable space exploration supported by humans, large-array telescopes and deep-space robotic missions. It could achieve maximum benefit from American tax dollars by drawing on the cutting-edge technology already being developed for the Constellation program." And in what has been seen as a reference to Armstrong's letter: "Remaining at the forefront of human spaceflight is the only choice worthy of this great nation and to the long line of explorers and visionaries who brought us to where we are today."

Sending a crew to rendezvous with a passing asteroid in deep space way beyond the Moon's orbit is in many respects a more challenging mission than a lunar landing. It will involve a new spacecraft, months in space, advanced life-support systems and rendezvous techniques, as well as technically demanding spacewalks if it was decided that astronauts would actually walk upon the asteroid. There will probably only be one – two at the most – such missions.

Beyond that, there is the Red Planet. Undoubtedly Mars is the first true "world" of the cosmos, a world of far greater variety and importance than our lifeless Moon. It is a world of wonders awaiting exploration. In a sense, the manned landing on the Moon was just a precursor to the landing on Mars – with its mountains, canyons, shifting sand dunes and the possibility of life. But Mars does not distract from the promise of the Moon.

Obama wants to do new things in space, but his decision to turn his back on manned exploration of the Moon has left some high and dry – and the door open for others.

The Moon of today is far different from the Moon we thought we understood when the Apollo astronauts returned home with their boxes of Moon rocks. Orbiting unmanned spacecraft have discovered vast deposits of ice in the eternally dark depths of polar craters. This ice not only provides water for colonists to drink and to irrigate crops in hydroponic bays, but its constituents – hydrogen and oxygen – can be used as rocket fuel. By any ergonomic and strategic analysis, the Moon base sits at the heart of a sensible solar system exploration plan. Under Constellation, Nasa wasn't going to the Moon on its own. Many other nations were involved: Russia, France, Japan, Ukraine, to name a few, as well as the European Space Agency (ESA). Nasa currently has in orbit around the Moon the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter – its main mission is to scout for landing sites that America no longer needs.

In the past month the ESA has issued a call to industry for the design of a sophisticated unmanned spacecraft to land at the shadowy lunar south pole and drive around, under control from earth, examining the region for ice deposits. ESA sees such a mission as paving the way for astronauts and the building of a permanent Moon base, drawing on the resources of the ice found beneath the soil there.

And just as the United States is turning away from the Moon, Russia is turning towards it. A few months ago, its major space company, Energia, announced it was designing a new spacecraft that would carry six astronauts into space. Room for a few money-spinning space tourists no doubt, but also the basis for a lunar spacecraft. China has an expanding space effort, and although it hasn't formally said it intends to land astronauts on the Moon that is being talked about. In reality, they would be making a few short-duration, Apollo-like trips more than 50 years after the US did it, but that won't stop many Americans disliking the possibility that the Chinese will be on the Moon and they are not. The head of Nasa, former astronaut Charles Bolden, recently told a congressional committee it didn't matter if China landed on the Moon before the US. "It does to me, and I think it does – with respect – to a lot of Americans," the Republican representative for Virginia, Frank Wolf, interjected. It should not have come down to a choice between a trip to an asteroid and the establishment of a Moon base. For the exploration of space, a base at the lunar south pole has more long-term importance than a manned flight to Mars. The Mars mission is in 25 years. We could have a Moonbase in 15. In the early days of the US-USSR space race the Soviets went for novelty and space firsts over logical progression. It cost them the Moon.

We should develop the new technologies needed to push out into deep space from the Moon. We should let future generation of science-hungry children have science lessons from Shackleton Crater at the lunar south pole. President Obama says that we've been there – and we have, but only six times, with the longest stay being just three days and three hours. The US has taken a decision that will result in it losing the Moon. It's a great shame, as we haven't even begun to explore it.

Dr David Whitehouse is author of 'One Small Step: The Inside Story of Space Exploration' as well as 'The Moon: A Biography'