In about 2008, when the shuttle retirement became more of a reality, the news was not all bad as it forced a rethink of the US human spaceflight programme. This radical appraisal led to the birth of the Constellation programme, the development of the Ares launch vehicles, and a long-term vision of US leadership in human spaceflight towards a return to the moon and a crewed landing on Mars. However, with the incoming Obama administration, the whole vision has been sacrificed, with the cancellation of the Ares programme (see picture gallery), and an extension of the ISS in low Earth orbit to 2020. So now we have the bizarre situation of the US astronauts being dependent upon the Russians for access to orbit (and ISS in particular), and no long-term vision for human exploration of the moon and Mars. How did we get here?!
It could be argued that spending huge sums on human space exploration at times of such financial stringency is foolish. However, as always, these things are not straightforward. Space programmes are not just about (apparently) wasting resources with little benefit to the man on the street – there are obviously financial and political dimensions. It’s all about jobs, and maintaining a trained, high-tech work force, to say nothing of the political objective of preserving US leadership in space. What will be the mood in the USA in a few years time when the next foot prints on the moon are Chinese?