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The astronaut who mourned the space program

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WHEN the first man on the moon died on Saturday, U.S. President Barack Obama tweeted: "Neil Armstrong was a hero not just of his time, but of all time." Armstrong’s final comment on Obama, on the other hand, was that the president’s policy on manned space flight was "devastating," and condemned the U.S. to "a long downhill slide to mediocrity."

That was two years ago, when three Americans who had walked on the moon, Neil Armstrong, James Lovell, commander of Apollo 13, and Eugene Cernan, commander of Apollo 17, published an open letter to Obama pointing out his new space policy effectively ended American participation in the human exploration of deep space.

Armstrong was famously reluctant to give media interviews. It took something as hugely short-sighted as Obama’s cancellation of the Constellation program in 2010 to make him speak out in public. But when he did, he certainly did not mince his words.

"We will have wasted our current $10-billion-­plus investment in Constellation," he said, "and equally importantly, we will have lost the many years required to recreate the equivalent of what we will have discarded. For the United States... to be without carriage to low Earth orbit and with no human exploration capability to go beyond Earth orbit... destines our nation to become one of second- or even third-rate stature."

If NASA (the National Aviation and Space Administration) wants to put an American into space now, it has to buy passage on a Russian rocket, which is more than $50 million per seat. By 2015, the Chinese will probably offer an alternative service (which may bring the price down), and before long India may be in the business as well. But the U.S. won’t.

There is likely to be a gap of between five and 10 years between the retirement of the space shuttle fleet last year and the first new American vehicles capable of putting a human being into space. Even then it will only be into low Earth orbit: None of the commercial vehicles now being developed will be able to do what the Saturn rockets did 41 years ago when they sent Armstrong and his colleagues to the moon.

Armstrong was a former military officer who would never directly call the president of the U.S. a liar or a fool, but his words left little doubt about what he really thought: "The availability of a commercial transport to orbit as envisioned in the president’s proposal cannot be predicted with any certainty, but is likely to take substantially longer and be more expensive than we would hope." In other words, don’t hold your breath.

This is not a global defeat for manned exploration of the solar system. The Russians are talking seriously about building a permanent base on the moon, and all the major Asian contenders are working on heavy-lift rockets that would enable them to go beyond Earth orbit. It’s just an American loss of will, shared equally by Obama and Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney.

"I know China is headed to the moon," Romney told a town hall audience in Michigan in February. "They’re planning on going to the moon, and some people say, ‘Oh, we’ve got to get to the moon, we’ve got to get there in a hurry to prove we can get there before China.’ It’s like, guys, we were there a long time ago, all right? And when you get there would you bring back some of the stuff we left?" Arrogant, complacent and wrong.

Americans went to the moon a long time ago, but the point is they can’t get there now, and won’t be able to for a long time to come. Which is why, in an interview 15 years ago, Armstrong told BBC science correspondent Pallab Ghosh: "The dream remains. The reality has faded a bit, but it will come back, in time."

It will, but probably not in the U.S.

Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.

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