Lost in space

PUBLISHED : Friday, 08 July, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 08 July, 2011, 12:00am


For 30 years they have seen the smoke, heard the roar of engines and watched as the most complex vehicle mankind has ever built thundered into the sky on a pillar of flame.

Weather permitting late tonight, Hong Kong time, Nasa will send the space shuttle aloft for the 135th and final time on a mission that will end a historic era in human achievement, along with the livelihoods of thousands at the Kennedy Space Centre who made it possible.

The sense of loss is acute at America's gateway to space, which grew as the Mercury, Gemini, Apollo and then space shuttle programmes took America towards the final frontier, earning this stretch of Florida its nickname as the Space Coast and the telephone dialling code 3-2-1.

Now, with the shuttle retiring and President Barack Obama having cancelled its successor - and the plan to put Americans back on the moon by 2020 - up to 10,000 workers at the space centre have lost their jobs. Nasa must henceforth pay the Russian space agency to get American astronauts to and from the International Space Station, while bankrolling commercial rocketeers to build new space taxis for the future.

For many, confidence that the US can in the meantime retain the space supremacy it has maintained since 1969 - when it fulfilled President John F. Kennedy's challenge to put man on the moon - is shaky. There is disappointment at the lack of JFK-style vision from today's White House.

'Our space programme was about American pride and exceptionalism. Some of us actually liked that dream. Betrayed is a strong word, but it's the right word for how a lot of people are feeling now,' said Victor Dahlquist, 60, a product support manager at the space centre made redundant after 22 years. 'They think America's going to retain its space supremacy? Tell that to the Russians and the Chinese.'

It is a sentiment regularly expressed within the spaceflight community. As Nasa enters a period of uncertainty, with no government rocket in production, even senior managers admit they are 'embarrassed' by the lack of direction.

Space centre worker Terry White helped to build the shuttle Columbia in the 1970s.

'There will be another space race but I don't think it will be the activity it was back then with just two powers,' he said, standing in the orbiter processing facility at space centre beside the shuttle Discovery, which is being decommissioned along with the Endeavour ready for museum display.

'Everyone's going to have to catch up to the Chinese ... the Chinese are the ones who are really marching down that road to the moon now.'

Nasa head Major Charlie Bolden sees China not so much as a threat to US pre-eminence in space as a potential future partner. But under a clause inserted into a 2011 funding bill passed by Congress in April, he is banned from entering into any such partnership in the current fiscal year.

The congressman who wrote the wording, Republican Frank Wolf, wants to make it permanent. 'Most countries expanding their space programmes are strong US allies that are primarily interested in advancing science research or building a commercial space industry. The Chinese, however, do not fall into this category,' he reasoned at the time.

He noted the 'surprising pace' at which China is developing its space programme, launching its first astronaut into orbit in 2003, performing its first spacewalk in 2008, unveiling plans earlier this year for a space station in low-earth orbit, and in March announcing plans for a heavy-lift rocket capable of launching manned missions to the moon and beyond.

Voicing his fears that China is working to a military-driven agenda, he added: 'The US has no business co-operating with the [People's Liberation Army] to develop its space programme.'

Leroy Chiao, 50, a former Nasa astronaut of Chinese descent, told the South China Morning Post: 'I don't know how else to characterise this but good old-fashioned xenophobia and isolationism. Charlie [Bolden] is very much a believer in international co-operation, as am I, and President Obama and the White House scientific adviser John Holdren.

'I think all of us believe that we should constructively engage countries like China, especially in a civil space programme, just as we have done with the Russians. We were mortal enemies with the Soviet Union and here we are working with them in the most ambitious civil space project, the International Space Station, for two decades.'

Chiao, whose parents are Chinese, left Nasa in 2005 after three shuttle missions and a turn as commander of the space station. In 2006, he was the first American allowed inside China's Astronaut Research and Training Centre.

'I don't believe there's any need to fear China's civil space programme. It doesn't advance their military space programme if the US were to co-operate with them in civil space - for example, have them join the ISS and learn how to co-operate in space conducting research.'

In 2009, Chiao served on the independent panel set up by Obama to review the US manned space programme. One of its suggestions was that international co-operation in space should be expanded.

Chiao is keen for the US to engage China and others on future lunar activities, such as testing rovers on the moon, as part of an international push beyond low-earth orbit.

'What will happen if we don't? We would take steps backwards, as some members of Congress are already doing,' he said. 'China could very well be the second country on the moon.'