Man Walks on F*&%ing Moon

The Internet has been all abuzz today over the anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing. Tor has the best one-stop collection of reminiscences, but there are plenty of others. They’re roughly equally split between “Wasn’t that the coolest thing ever?” and “Isn’t it a shame we stopped going.

I was a bit over -2 when the Moon landing happened, so I have no personal recollections to offer. It’s a significant enough anniversary for a geek like myself, though, that I wouldn’t want it to pass completely without comment.

Personally, while I have some sympathy for the laments that we stopped sending people to the Moon, I think it does a disservice to all the hard work that’s been done in the last thirty-odd years. James Nicoll offers a list of incredible accomplishments since the end of Apollo, and it’s an impressive list indeed. The robotic exploration programs get kind of slighted whenever the Apollo anniversaries roll around, and it’s a shame, because they’ve done far more for our understanding of the solar system than any of the manned missions.

I like the idea of new manned missions– called for by former astronauts, among others, but they’re butting up against an ugly fact: rocket science is hard. The currently available methods for getting things out into space all kind of suck, and absent some great improvements in propulsion technology, it’s just not that practical to send humans to Mars, let alone anywhere else. It’s also not clear that there’s a compelling reason to do so.

Don’t get me wrong– I’d love to see something like the plasma rocket described in the Franklin Chang Diaz profile, or better yet, Karl Schroeder’s Verne Gun. I’d love to see more manned exploration missions, even though it’s pretty clear that I’m not personally going to get to set foot on Mars. But until somebody comes up with a better launch mechanism and a killer propulsion system, robots are the way to go.

At the same time, though, I have very little sympathy for the Gil Scot-Heron argument that we shouldn’t be spending money on space exploration at all. Yeah, fine, we spent almost $20 billion on NASA last year that could’ve been spent on social programs, but Americans as a whole spent almost $10 billion on movie tickets last year, which is even more frivolous. And let’s not even talk about the gargantuan defense budget.

If I thought that last $20 billion would make the difference between the status quo and an ideal world of perfect equality and no poverty, then you might have a case. But you know, there are lots of other places to get that money from, that are doing even less good for humankind.

Comments

  1. #1 Cecil
    July 20, 2009

    Your tagline reminded me of my favorite “newspaper coverage” – from the Onion.

    http://www.members.shaw.ca/rlongpre01/moon.html

  2. #2 Anton P. Nym
    July 20, 2009

    I do find it particularly annoying to see the cost of Apollo run down as being wasteful and extravagant by those who’ve received TARP money. Ten years of manned space projects, 1962-1972 (in 2008 dollars), cost a quarter of what went out under TARP… and at least Apollo got some shiny rocks for it, even discounting everything else us lunatics throw around when asked to justify the cost.

    I know how much space science can be done today with automated probes (Free Spirit!) but some simian part of my mind insists that one of us need to be there to really say we’ve explored something. It’s the difference between taking photographs and gas chromatograph samples of a cake, and actually taking a bite.

    (And heck, it’s not that pricey… even in terms of entertainment value, I personally think manned space flight is a better deal than the NFL.)

    — Steve

  3. #3 jagorev
    July 21, 2009

    Cecil – That’s what I thought of too as soon as I saw the headline. Here’s a video version:

    http://theneweditor.com/index.php?/archives/9870-The-Onion-Moon-Landing.html

  4. #4 Dunc
    July 21, 2009

    I’m not sure that the “Gil Scott-Heon argument” is that “we shouldn’t be spending money on space exploration at all” – it’s that if we can walk on the friggin’ moon if we want to badly enough, we can also do something about poverty and injustice if we want to badly enough. The fact that we apparently don’t was what he was trying to highlight, IMHO. Of course, I could be wrong about that…

  5. #5 6EQUJ5
    July 21, 2009

    There isn’t much that manned spaceflight can do that robotic spaceflight can’t, and robots can do what humans cannot do — survive outside Earth’s magnetosphere without tons of shielding. Robots will always be vastly cheaper and safer as explorers.

  6. #6 Michael Cook
    July 21, 2009

    Actually, having spent most of my lie up to my neck in all the issues of poverty and the criminal justice system, I am pretty sure that spending an infinite amount of money will not “end” either injustice or poverty, although it might camouflage those things somewhwat. The underlying problem is that good teaching increases individual differences. So does a good, truly level playing field economic system with no artificial limits on upper attainments.

    But Michio Yukio (?spell?) has it exactly right when he says that the reason for man to go off planet is to preserve the miracle of life by spreading it as far as we can across the universe. Where man goes, we will take the rest of our biota, or a diverse sampling of it. Since so far life seems to be a rare commodity in the big picture this is a worthy mission.

  7. #7 Mark P
    July 21, 2009

    I saw a moon landing documentary over the weekend. Chris Craft was on it. He said we ought to go back to the moon when it’s easy to do it. I think he nailed it.

  8. #8 mdiehl
    July 21, 2009

    For exploration of a lesser known entity closer to home – perhaps less costly with more to be gained in the long run – see: http://seasteading.org/blogs/main/2009/06/10/robert-ballards-ted-talk-ocean-exploration

  9. #9 Bornova
    July 21, 2009

    Why Nasa cant go to moon and walk on it now?

  10. #10 Jonathan Vos Post
    July 21, 2009

    When I worked on Moonbase and Marsbase design (and Shuttle and Space Station and many other things) at Rockwell, we used to ask: “If NASA can put a man on the Moon, why can’t NASA can put a man on the Moon?”