Built on Facts

The Moon!

Forty years ago two human beings traveled a quarter million miles in a tiny metal capsule and stepped out onto the surface of the Moon. It was the most dramatic footfall in the history of our species, I am in absolute awe of all the Apollo program accomplished. Though it’s a long shot, I’m hopeful that space tourism will become practical and inexpensive enough that someday I can be maybe the millionth or so person to stand on our sister world and look back at home.

Until then, I can just admire the pictures just taken by the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter of some of the old Apollo sites including the one where Armstrong and Aldrin once walked – and I add that Collins has earned equal acclaim though his part of the mission didn’t allow him to leave orbit and make the walk.

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The height of the satellite didn’t allow resolution enough to make out the details and the flag (which was probably knocked over by the rocket blast of the lunar module). But it’s still a dramatic image, and with any luck they’ll get more dramatic until another person makes that long trip and brings our species back to the Moon.

Sadly it might be a while. NASA’s manned space program is in dire straits, tightly constrained by budgetary realities and hobbled by the need to keep 100 senators happy by spreading out contracts in a sufficiently greasy fashion. Not so long in the future the US will have no native human launch capacity in the gap between the end of the Shuttle and the putative beginning of the Ares launch system, and we’ll be beholden to the Russians for access to the Space Station. (Which I’ve argued is a terrible waste and ought to be scrapped anyway).

Buzz Aldrin has an even dimmer opinion. He thinks the entire current lunar project is a waste and that NASA should be focusing on Mars – not a visit, but a one-way trip with permanent settlers. He believes the reconquest of the moon can be done via the private sector working with NASA for profit, whether from $100,000,000 tourism or helium-3 mining or something else. And if it turns out not to be profitable, he’s willing to leave the moon aside entirely in favor of the new exploration of Mars.

It’s an excellent case and if you can find this month’s Popular Mechanics it’s a blisteringly good read. I’m convinced, though anything is an improvement on this low orbit BS we’ve been doing for decades.

For the “We should solve our problems here on Earth first” crowd, well, I think you should reconsider. Being tied entirely to Earth is a problem, and I’m pretty sure that 1/2 of one cent of each federal dollar isn’t going to fix the rest of the world anyway. But that fraction could give us whole worlds. I don’t know if we’ll succeed, but we should try – and it will be amazing to watch.

Comments

  1. #1 johan c
    July 20, 2009

    That is a brilliant plan, go settle on mars instead! The next shuttle program starting next year will be interesting.

    Maybe we should consider, that if we want to bring a whole settlement to mars, we need something better than the currently planned. Was the idea, to start with the moon not that also we could use it as a launch platform to goto mars?
    Just think it will be quite impossible to lift off such a big pile of stuff and people in a regular fashion.

    Maybe they should build a space station with better docking options, load everything needed up to it, and then head out from there when it was all ready.

  2. #2 Invader Xan
    July 20, 2009

    It would be worth mentioning to the naysayers too, that all of those nice shiny “must have” consumer electronics they know and love are full of rare elements. Elements like Hafnium, Gallium, Indium, Germanium and Tantalum.

    These things aren’t going to last forever here on Earth at the rate we’re consuming them. In 100 years or so, we might find that we need to extract resources from the Moon to meet demands. Whoever has a lunar mining operation in place when that happens might just hold a monopoly on the market!

  3. #3 Uncle Al
    July 20, 2009

    Patriarchal White Protestant European oppressors of planets of colour. A permanent colony implies progeny. Unless NASA has three Appalachian asstronaughts and a laying chicken there will be trouble: proper minority representation including the other-abled, the mentally challenged, and the socially advocated Offically Sad. Two generations later, hyphenated Marsican names will require a 64-bit OS for “fill in your name, one letter/box.”

    The only rational colonists would be Pennsylvania Dutch given their cultural low expectations, genetic redundancy, and non-technological handiwork. Nobody goes anywhere until NASA’s horse-drawn rocket has a viable launch-abort sequence. Will it Wong Ranch buggalo, Jim DiGriz’ porcuswine, or a Bill the Galactic Hero’s Chlora-Filly (“there’s sunshine in every bite!”) grazing Martian plains?

  4. #4 CCPhysicist
    July 20, 2009

    johan@1: there is no shuttle program after this one.

    Glad you found that picture, Matt, but the full-size one Astroprof has is much better. It shows the remarkable detail the LRO is getting and just how lonely that site is. You can find a link to Astroprof’s article and a better picture link than the one you used from my blog (yesterday) as well as comments from my brother about how they “sewed” the computer program into the Apollo guidance computer. (BTW, a page linked from the one you gave mistakenly describes the memory as “chips”, which is utter nonsense.) Stay tuned for my own photo, which appears roughly in real time tonight.

    Also, Aldrin saw the flag blown over as they lifted off. Later flags were planted further away so they should be intact and might be visible when the LRO gets low enough for 50 cm resolution imagery.

  5. #5 Zeno
    July 20, 2009

    Forty years ago on this day I was beginning to think about the prospect of having my 50th birthday party at the Lunar Hilton. I mean, why not? It was more than 30 years in the future and by then we were sure to have regular tourist flights. So, so wrong!

    If you are old enough to have watched the moon landing back in 1969, what did you think would be going on 40 years later? Was your guess better than mine? (I know: a low bar.)

  6. #6 tjallen
    July 21, 2009

    1492 – (re-)discovery of North America
    1607 – first permanent colony
    —-
    115 years

    Yes, several earlier attempted colonies.

  7. #7 Talisker
    July 21, 2009

    @tjallen: You seem to be forgetting permanent Spanish colonies in the Caribbean from 1493 onwards.

    Of course, crossing the Atlantic by sail with 1590s technology was a lot easier than reaching the moon with 1960s/2000s technology…

  8. #8 rob
    July 21, 2009

    the stainless steel rat!

  9. #9 D
    July 21, 2009

    Of course Aldrin’s plan sounds nicer. Here people are debating whether to spend a sum X on putting people permanently on a moon base or to spend it on sending someone visiting Mars as a one shot trip. Aldrin buzzes along and says “let’s put people permanently on Mars bases!”. Gee, I wonder why no-one else thought of that :P

  10. #10 Ken
    July 21, 2009

    Ummmm excuse me? “two human beings traveled a quarter million miles in a tiny metal capsule”

    So what happened to Micheal Collins?

    I doubt Neil and Buzz would have succeeded had he not tagged along for the ride.

  11. #11 Matt Springer
    July 22, 2009

    Ken, if you had gone on to read the next part of the sentence and the following paragraph you’d see that your worries were unfounded. Not only did I not forget Collins, I singled him out for particular notice.

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