Built on Facts

Going Back

Another former astronaut, one of the few in the extremely exclusive club of men who’ve walked the lunar surface, is advocating a human return.

There’s not many people who’d like to see such a thing more than me. Officially it’s NASA policy to get us back to the moon by… lessee, 2020 I believe is the current figure. Delays would not be unexpected. From the Kennedy speech announcing our goal of landing on the moon for the first time to Armstrong’s stepping onto the Sea of Tranquility was 6 years, 8 months, and 8 days. With technology from the 60s! We are in a sorry state indeed.

Yes, yes, spaceflight is expensive. And of all people a taxpayer-money hawk like me ought to be suspicious of grandiose projects which don’t necessarily have a lot of direct practical benefit. With the Dow nudging the 7000s and possibly preparing to go lower there’s even less money than usual to go around. But let’s have some perspective too. Of every taxpayer dollar the federal government spends, NASA gets one half of one cent. The $700b bailout would have funded NASA for 40 years at the current rate. Allegedly the bailout will be paid back, but I’m not holding my breath.

Now there’s nothing preventing other nations from getting to the moon either. I don’t think Russia or the EU will make an effort, but China or India might. That would be fine with me. I’d like to see the US seriously in the human space exploration game, and the more nations competing/cooperating the better the chance of success. Despite popular opinion, however, money in those nations is not exactly unlimited either. The global economic problems squeeze everyone. We’re probably stuck in low orbit (or on the ground) for a while.

So when will somebody next stand on the moon? I’m going to be optimistic and say that the 2020 goal is achievable, especially if the economy picks back up in a few years. Technology grows by the day and as private space ventures become feasible then NASA can focus more on the really difficult stuff. Throw in a possible space race and you never know.

But let’s not wait around. One of my life goals is to see a human being on Mars. If we can’t make it to the moon than we’re definitely not making progress to the planets. Get going!

Comments

  1. #1 Jim C
    November 21, 2008

    I am reasonably sure man will return to the moon and eventually Mars and even other places in solar system. However I am not sure they will be Americans. If I had to guess I would say they will be Chinese.

  2. #2 llewelly
    November 21, 2008

    If the Republicans (and most Democrats) hadn’t pissed away over a trillion on the invasion of Iraq, and helped create a financial crisis they have so far spent more trillions on, a few trips to the moon would be easy to afford. Anyway, I don’t believe we’ll ever go back. In the 1980s – ten percent less spent on ICBMs – of which we had far more than there was any conceivable use for – would have put astronauts back on the moon, brought back rocks and cores and stuff. In the 1990s the economy was plenty strong – and military cutbacks were saving lots of money. America could have gone back to the moon then too. Then we got Bush, who made big moon talk, but – wait. I already mentioned that part.

    The $700b bailout would have funded NASA for 40 years at the current rate. Allegedly the bailout will be paid back, but I’m not holding my breath.

    $700b bailout? Did you notice that the bill’s fine print raised the national debt ceiling by $2 trillions? Why did they do that if the bailout was only $700b?

  3. #3 yogi-one
    November 21, 2008

    I don’t think the Chinese can do it. I don’t see that they will be able to keep their astronauts safe. If they are to seriously put a man on the moon, it takes engineering excellence, and lots of double and triple safety testing.

    From what I have seen of how China’s government approaches big projects, they will have to lose the lives of lots astronauts before international pressure finally forces them to practice safety.

    Putting a man on the moon is not just a big propaganda scheme designed to fool the citizens and enrich the friends of the president. My take is that they will have to learn that the hard way – meaning avoidable human and political disasters caused by not paying enough attention to safety and not enough testing of components.

    India will also have problems of dealing with entrenched corruption among those who would be financing and overseeing the project. But India I think has the bigger hurdle of being a more democratic country. Given that their huge social problems of poverty, education and infrastructure tend to dominate politics, a first uphill battle would be to convince the citizens that the money would not be better spent on those issues.

    So actually I think America has the best shot at it – because we have done it recently, and Americans know how cool it is to have humans going where no man has gone before and all the rest of it.

    And hopefully, under (relatively) more sane presidential administrations, a return to world leadership in the roles of science and space exploration may come to be seen as an effective way to restore America’s image as a responsible, inspiring world superpower.

  4. #4 Eric Lund
    November 21, 2008

    Don’t underestimate the influence of the Cold War. Kennedy wanted to make sure Americans sent somebody to the moon before the Soviet Union did. A new cold war would provide some extra incentive for going back. Without that impetus, we’re a lot less likely to go back.

    As for who is in the running: Certainly the US. Probably China, if the present government can maintain the Mandate of Heaven through the economic crisis. I wouldn’t count out India, who just recently sent an unmanned spacecraft up to the moon, but I agree they have further to go. Brazil, if they ever make the transition to country of the present*, is a dark horse candidate. Russia’s program is toast for at least the next half century, and neither ESA nor Japan have demonstrated any interest in manned space flight.

    *Reference to an old joke: “Brazil is the country of the future, and always will be.”

  5. #5 Uncle Al
    November 21, 2008

    0) Crib Saturn MLV-V-3 booster blueprints. Ditto Apollo. Remember to pack those sealable bags with their internal finger projections.

    1) Set up a huge and perfect retroreflector array for lunar laser ranging. Beware mounting and corner cube thermal gradient distortions.

    2) Set up a huge remote control tube TV set, CRT of course, with an open chassis. Cut off all the glass envelopes. Align the satellite receiver dish. Pre-pay the extended sports package. No C-SPAN!

    3) Set up a camera pointed at the TV screen.

    4) Go home.

  6. #6 Zifnab
    November 21, 2008

    “– If the Republicans (and most Democrats) hadn’t pissed away over a trillion on the invasion of Iraq, and helped create a financial crisis they have so far spent more trillions on, a few trips to the moon would be easy to afford. –”

    Translation: Blah, blah, yadda, yadda, I BLAME THE OPPOSITION PARTY, meander meader, stop.

    That’s swell. And if Clinton had just bombed Osama properly we never would have had 9/11 and then we could have spent all $1 trillion in war money exclusively on space exploration. Right.

    That said,

    The moon is a blessing in more ways than one. It would make an excellent extra-planetary staging point, it has the potential to act as a relay or a satellite for signal transmission, its mineral rich, it has a friendly always Earth-facing orbit. It does lots of neat stuff and I think we could benefit enormously by exploiting it.

    But we don’t have any of the technology to do that properly yet. The ISS – for instance – isn’t a bad idea. It’s just ahead of its time. Moving materials into space is godawful expensive. Space travel remains a risky endeavor (and I feel ghoulish even pointing out the pun). Apollo 11 was a major accomplishment, but I don’t want to see us risk another Apollo 13 – or worse – just because we really, really, really want to touch space dust.

    Ultimately, I’ve been swayed by more than a few of my NASA-employed friends that unmanned missions are really the wave of the future. Sticking boots on the lunar surface is just silly when we can throw remote units up there to do all the scientific research we could ask for.

    In all honestly, I don’t see why the entire ISS isn’t automated. Shuttling food and fuel up to the station seems silly. The amount of money and energy we spend on life-support far outstrips the benefit of a human presence.

    Remote drones can do more work at a cheaper cost. They don’t need to sleep – you just hand the controls off to your co-worker when you need a break. They’re stronger, more dexterous, and less resource intensive. They can work in extreme environments and don’t use up finite resources like oxygen or astronaut ice cream. They’re just better. Period.

    If we really want a presence in space, it just seems like more sense to flood the void with droids and let them do all the heavy lifting. Astronauts are, in my opinion, an artifact of a pre-computerized age.

  7. #7 Zifnab
    November 21, 2008

    “– From what I have seen of how China’s government approaches big projects, they will have to lose the lives of lots astronauts before international pressure finally forces them to practice safety. –”

    http://www.thoughtware.tv/videos/watch/2862-The-Onion-China-Launches-First-Willing-Manned-Mission-Into-Space

    I think I saw that joke on the Onion.

  8. #8 Matt Springer
    November 21, 2008

    The Iraq war has run a little over a half trillion. I believe the bailout was debated for about a week before exceeding that number by two hundred billion dollars.

    The war is very, very expensive. People should keep perspective though, the ~$100b a year or so it costs represents just over 3% of total federal spending. Washington spends a lot of money.

  9. #9 IBY
    November 22, 2008

    If the people from the 60s could do it under a decade, then I think the current NASA can do it by 2020

  10. #10 Johnfruh
    November 22, 2008

    @Zifnab #6
    Well said. Very logical and insightful. Unfortunately on this blog, passion trumps reason. I tried to make your points earlier but to no avail. That being said, I’m happy to read that I am not alone.

  11. #11 llewelly
    November 23, 2008

    Zifnab:

    Translation: Blah, blah, yadda, yadda, I BLAME THE OPPOSITION PARTY, meander meader, stop.

    Clearly you didn’t read what I wrote:

    In the 1990s the economy was plenty strong – and military cutbacks were saving lots of money. America could have gone back to the moon then too.

    In most of the 1990s – for those who don’t recall history – Clinton had the white house. He made no effort to go to the moon. The Republicans had majorities in congress from 1994 on. They made no effort to go to the moon either. So whoever you think ‘THE OPPOSITION PARTY’ is, neither party is interested in going back to the moon.

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