The U.S. is relying more heavily upon private space industry to launch space missions and fill the gaps in NASA's manned space program as budgetary cuts and financial screws are applied to the space agency's annual budget.
With the retirement of the space shuttle, and delays plaguing America's future presence in space, the severity of the cutbacks was driven home by NASA chief Charles Bolden's flat pronouncement that the United States of America will not be returning to the Moon anytime in the foreseeable future.
The glory and the riches will be left to other spacefaring nations like Russia, China, India and Japan—by default.
While major space projects—and the budgets to support them—have been announced, such as Russia's new initiative to get to the Moon and Mars, the U.S. position has been to concentrate more on scientific study and exploration instead of exploitation of solar system assets.
Whether it's a lack of vision, or just plain lack of courage, America is taking a back seat to Russia and China and their ambitions to colonize the Moon and mine the lunar surface for abundant rare earths including titanium, platinum and helium-3. The isotope of helium, exceedingly rare on Earth, is abundant on the Moon and is seen as the future fuel for fusion reactor power generating plants on Earth.
Ironically, the U.S. space program's shortsightedness is a two-edged sword: it provides a significant competitive advantage to other countries competing for access to space assets and the trillions of dollars to be had from emerging space-oriented industries, while at the same time providing an impetus and incentive to the fledgling start-up private sector companies like Moon Express and SpaceX that are seeking to make space profitable. Plans on the drawing board that are moving ahead include private space stations, space tourism, lunar missions, private space industry initiatives, asteroid mining, and even plans to mount a Mars mission.
Those private companies will be competing with state giants like Russia and China.
Mars and the asteroids
Jeff Foust of SpacePolitics.com reported the bad news: "NASA is not going to the Moon with a human as a primary project probably in my lifetime," the NASA administrator admitted. Speaking to the members of a special joint meeting of the Space Studies Board and the Aeronautics and Space Engineering Board convened in Washington, D.C., he added, "And the reason is, we can only do so many things."
Bolden went on to explain that NASA is going to remain focused on the asteroids and Mars. Unfortunately, considering the space agency's time frame, by the time they make a serious attempt to move out toward the asteroids they may need Google's permission. And with the Russian's aggressive Martian schedule, American astronauts may require a passport and visa to walk the plains of the Red Planet.
As far as Mars, America's space prestige and honor may rest with Elon Musk, billionaire founder of PayPal and SpaceX who wants to bankroll a privately funded manned Mars mission with other investors.
You lead — we'll follow
In the space of less than three decades, America and NASA have morphed from a leadership position in manned space travel and exploration to a nation and agency willing to sit back and watch others blaze the trail—and reap potentially huge financial rewards.
Bolden remarked at the joint meeting that NASA knows of the aggressive manned space missions other nations are funding. "They all have dreams of putting humans on the Moon," he acknowledged. "I have told every head of agency of every partner agency that if you assume the lead in a human lunar mission, NASA will be a part of that. NASA wants to be a participant."
NASA, he added, would be willing to help.
It's another sign that the fire seems to have left the American spirit.