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Moon-race fever will get no-one anywhere fast

Posted by [email protected] on February 7, 2012 at 5:35 AM

The past couple of weeks has seen both American presidential hopefuls and the Russian space agency predict permanent bases on The Moon by 2020.

Right-wing darling Newt Gingrich proposed an Apollo-style race to put a permanent base on The Moon by 2020, with the Tea Party-pleasing spin that it could be done without any increase to NASA's budget.

Gingrich's speech pandering to freshly-unemployed space industry workers in Florida didn't seem to do him much good - he subsequently lost to fellow Republican candidate Mitt Romney in the Florida, Nevada and Iowa primaries.

The excitement about a US moonbase seemed to inspire the Russian Space Agency, which is looking for a big new project after the debacle of its lost Mars probe.

Russia's possibly further ahead, since it's building a bigger version of its Soyuz workhorse space capsule for Space Adventures to sling around The Moon with a couple of paying passengers aboard.

NASA and the US government, on the other hand, don't seem to know whether to let commercial spaceflight handle the business of getting into orbit while they develop better technology and focus on activity beyond the Earth.

The Apollo-style Orion capsule seems far too small for anything but vanity missions planting flags around the inner Solar System, and the SLS will probably still be on the drawing board when SpaceX's Falcon Heavy takes off.

Both Russia and the USA are responding the straw men of Chinese and Indian spaceflight programmes, which they fear could topple their dominance of manned spaceflight.

India doesn't have a reliable geostationary launcher, let alone anything capable of manned spaceflight, while China's space programme progresses slowly, but just fast enough to rattle the cage of its fellow superpowers.

Any mention of a Chinese moonshot seems to send America, in particular, into paranoid seizures with visions of merciless yellow overlords ruling the high frontier.

If that nightmare comes true it will be their own fault, since politicians and space agency chiefs in both America and Russia would rather have a jingoistic short-term goal that they can't achieve than a long-term goal which would bring glory and success to their countries.

While they waste money on over-ambitious programmes that are soon cancelled, the Chinese space programme plods away, ahieving small but significant goals that add up to something big.

Armstrong may have got to The Moon in one giant leap, but staying there requires a lot of of small steps.

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