Moondoggle Returns

by Kieran Healy on September 19, 2005

In passing the other day, I mentioned the Moondoggle. This is the idea floated early last year that NASA might return to the moon and build a base there, for no particular reason. At the time I thought it was just a failed trial balloon that rose out of Karl Rove’s head. But several commenters said that in fact it was alive and well, and now I see the BBC reports that 2020 has been set as the date NASA will triumphantly return to 1969—er, I mean, the moon. Nasa Administrator Mike Griffin said the new launch vehicle and lander would be “very Apollo-like, with updated technology. Think of it as Apollo on steroids.” This is an appropriate comparison, because it makes clear that the new project will be bloated, prone to fights, and, when it comes to producing anything of lasting scientific value, probably impotent.

{ 57 comments }

1

Andrew 09.19.05 at 1:07 pm

That’s such a great idea because the US government has so much money at the moment and a base on the moon is so incredibly practical and useful.

2

Simon R 09.19.05 at 1:23 pm

Kieran, you missed: The subject for a lengthy congressional investigation that diverts attention from real issues.

But seriously, people: Get behind the President on his plan to go back to the moon. That’s the only way we can make sure the rocket is firmly attached before we launch him.

3

BigMacAttack 09.19.05 at 1:35 pm

The market under supplies public goods such as culture. I think we can all agree that such great cultural achievements don’t just emerge as a product of spontaneous order. The purpose of Social Democracies is to fill such market gaps.

In addition the effort will undoubtedly help utilize slack resources and thus have an over all beneficial impact on the economy.

So, I say bravo, but Bush doesn’t go far enough. We need to think about building two moon bases.

(That was ironic.)

4

P ONeill 09.19.05 at 1:40 pm

How they will get the White House klieg lights up there, the ones that made the trip down to New Orleans — because, on their current trajectory, the plan may well be to have whatever Bush is president at the time do a speech from there, like in New Orleans last week:

The president will be positioned at a podium set up in the grass in the square, with a statute of Andrew Jackson astride his horse and St. Louis Cathedral in the background. Bobby DeServi and Scott Sforza were on hand as we drove up about 8 p.m. or so EDT handling last-minute details of the stagecraft. Bush will be lit with warm tungsten lighting, but the statue and cathedral will be illuminated with much brighter, brighter lights, along nothing like the candlepower that DeServi and Sforza used on Sept. 11, 2002, to light up the Statue of Liberty for Bush’s speech in New York Harbor. Here’s a quote from DeServi on the lit up cathedral: “Oh, it’s heated up. It’s going to print loud.” Bush will be hidden from street view by a large swatch of military camouflage netting, held in place by bags of rocks and strung up on poles

(busted permalink on Wonkette)

5

Morat 09.19.05 at 2:00 pm

Actually, given the size of NASA’s budget and the amounts they’re requesting, it wouldn’t even be noticed for the yearly federal budget.

NASA gets about 15 billion a year, which coverds EVERYTHING NASA does — space flight (manned and unmanned), research (from space science to materials science to astrophysics), everything. Last I checked, we blow more a month in Iraq. Most people seem to think we spend hundreds of billions a year on NASA or have such an incorrect understanding of the size of the budget that they think 15 billion is some large percentage of what the government spends.

NASA’s actually being rather clever about the moon thing — they don’t expect it to happen either. But they’re happy to use the funds appropriated for it to create a new heavy-lift and a new manned vehicle. (The cheap and smart way — adapting shuttle technology, rather than starting from scratch and ditching the plane-style landing in favor of splash-downs and cheaper, safer, ablation rather than the touchy TPS).

Not a bad trade, really — a new and more reliable 100+ ton lifting vehicle and a MUCH safer 6 man capsule…which means, if nothing else, we could finally expand the ISS crew to 6 and do something besides float in circles. (It takes three people just to keep the thing floating). The crew module is already built — there’s just no point in launching it unless you have a return vehicle big enough for the whole crew.

6

abb1 09.19.05 at 2:15 pm

Moon? Who cares about the moon; he’s going to worlds beyond:

With the experience and knowledge gained on the moon, we will then be ready to take the next steps of space exploration: human missions to Mars and to worlds beyond.
http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/science/nature/3399091.stm

7

mijnheer 09.19.05 at 2:38 pm

China has long-range plans for sending astronauts to the moon, though the timetable appears vague.
http://msnbc.msn.com/id/5099750/
Here’s my view: Karl Rove just read Locke and isn’t sure that bringing home rocks constitutes legitimate appropriation (“the rocks my servants have placed in their lunar lander”?). So it’s back to the Moon to mix some labour with the “soil” before the Chinese build a moon base and claim the whole ball of wax and wane.

8

M. Gordon 09.19.05 at 2:44 pm

which means, if nothing else, we could finally expand the ISS crew to 6 and do something besides float in circles.

What kind of useful science do you envision the ISS doing? NASA does very little useful science these days, it seems like, and basically the only thing the ISS can do that can’t be done on earth or with sattelites are zero-G studies on humans, of which NASA has done plenty already. I think the ISS is just as much of a boondoggle as the moon base, as is manned space flight in general. Until propulsion technology gets a lot better, we’re stuck here, and spending gobs of money on sending three people to other places that are marginally further away doesn’t seem like a good investment.

9

Matt Austern 09.19.05 at 2:47 pm

NASA does quite a lot of useful science these days. It’s just that none of it involves sending human into orbit.

10

Wrye 09.19.05 at 3:14 pm

I think the Bushies’ motives in setting NASA’s priorities on the moon may well have been something of a Trojan horse for gutting NASA, so I’d like to think that NASA’s moon plans are actually a counter Trojan horse for something useful.

Given the extraordinarily interesting unmanned probes and missions on the drawing board (see “Terrestrial Planent Finder”), I would hate to see NASA lose funding for the real stuff just for the sake of political puffery.

And as for the perennial problem of propulsion technology, is there *any* research being done on that?

11

Nonny Mouse 09.19.05 at 3:53 pm

The comments here seem to miss the real point of the moon launch. It is a project with little scientific value, but by instituting it without increasing NASA funding, it kills all the other research NASA does. Research on inconvenient things like climate change, and the rest of the earth observation program.

12

Chris Williams 09.19.05 at 3:55 pm

Point of information – Apollo produced lots that was of lasting scientific value. Perhaps the same data could have been gathered more cheaply with machines, but probably not in the late 1960s.

Perhaps there were better things to spend the cash on, but I don’t think there were. On the other hand, none of the money was mine.

13

JP 09.19.05 at 4:05 pm

The Moon, bitches!

14

carter 09.19.05 at 4:20 pm

Alternative 3.

15

Clayton 09.19.05 at 4:27 pm

I’m starting to think that it might be best if someone would just blow up the moon and remove the temptation. Let’s get Bob, David, and a monkey that knows no sign language on it immediately.

16

jet 09.19.05 at 5:10 pm

bigmackattack,
I’m wondering if you typo-ed. “The purpose of Social Democracies is to fill such market gaps.” The US is most definitely not a Social Democracy. It is a Republic, infatuated with capitalism.

17

Sean 09.19.05 at 5:43 pm

Don’t be tricked into thinking that money for the Moon project will be good for the health of science at NASA. The whole thing is incredibly bad news for science — like the space station, only worse. And not just NASA; it’s already happening that budgets are being trimmed for research at NSF and elsewhere to make room for the Moon/Mars initiative.

18

Contradictory Ben 09.19.05 at 5:46 pm

Generally, I’m sceptical of Kieran Healy’s arguments against manned missions (here’s an earlier example) for one of the many good reasons that John Quiggin is critical of Lomborg’s Copenhagen Consensus: I suspect we have the resources to send both humans and probes into space, just as we have the resources both to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and to improve health in poor countries, so money spent on one of these tasks is not necessarily money stolen from another. (But there are probably economists hovering around here could show me why I’m wrong.)

M. Gordon writes:

Until propulsion technology gets a lot better, we’re stuck here, and spending gobs of money on sending three people to other places that are marginally further away doesn’t seem like a good investment.

Really? Won’t we need the knowledge of how to colonise bodies within our own solar system before we risk launching settlers to distant stars?

I suspect that solving the problems of colonising even a lump of rock like the Moon might produce something ‘of lasting scientific value’. That said, Mars would probably be a more rewarding target.

(Competing interests: I’m not a scientist, and I readily admit to being biased by the coolness factor of manned space exploration.)

19

Saheli 09.19.05 at 5:58 pm

While I agree with the general tenor of these posts, particularly, #11, I have to object to this:

It’s just that none of it involves sending human into orbit.

Well, yes, if you think astronomy is useless. Which I suggest you take up with Newton and Galileo. The useful science in question is Hubble, and it’s fantastic, and it very much needed astronauts to keep it going. It probably gives more constant satisfaction to the American consumer of science than most big-science projects, and I’m willing to go out on a limb and guess that 50 years from now it will have obviously influenced a whole new generation of engineers and scientists. There are some lunar seismologists, for instance, who would probably love to get their hands on the moon, but I think the vast majority of them would, given a fixed $15 B price tag, much rather get a much larger number of satellites into orbit.

20

Matt Austern 09.19.05 at 6:46 pm

I assure you, I have nothing against putting astronomical sensors in orbit. Some of them, including COBE and HST, have done very good science.

But what does any of that have to do with putting humans in orbit? These satellites are automated and remotely operated. You wouldn’t want a human anywhere near them, for reasons that ought to be obvious.

It’s true that HST was launched on the Shuttle. That has nothing to do with the scientific needs of that telescope, and everything to do with NASA’s and Congress’s decision not to have any launch vehicle other than the Shuttle for large satellites. Having astronauts there while it was being launched added no value; it delayed the launch by several years, and increased the cost by a huge margin.

I think you will find very few astronomers or astrophysicists or planetary scientists who think that the best way to get good astronomical data is to spend more money on putting people into orbit. I certainly haven’t ever met any scientist who thinks that.

21

togolosh 09.19.05 at 7:04 pm

Check out the latest Space Access Society Update for a well thought out analysis of the latest moon plan from a pro-space perspective:
http://www.space-access.org/updates/sau112.html

I’m a member of the Space Access Society and I fully support their goals, not least because Henry Vanderbilt (the director) really knows his stuff. There are deep structural reasons for NASA’s approach to space exploration, and they need to be addressed before there is any real hope for real exploration and development of space. A crude summary: NASA was born as a potlach to show the USSR that the USA had vastly more resources, and once the mission was accomplished it morphed into a cargo cult hoping to bring back the glory days of Apollo with their “waste anything but time” funding model. Until the organizational legacy of Apollo is killed NASA will never be able to do anything cheaply.

22

Jim Harrison 09.19.05 at 7:34 pm

Leaving the solar system is almost certainly impossible; but if we ever figure out some loophole in the laws of physics that makes it feasible, it will be by doing science here in Earth, not by playing Commander Corey and the Space Partrol with resources badly needed here.

23

Wrye 09.19.05 at 8:00 pm

And so we now pause to pay tribute to Professor Harrison, inventor of the graviton drive, and the to the brave inhabitants of Tasmania, who perished in the first field test… Who can forget his immortal last words, “If only I’d been able to test it in orbiiiiii–“

24

Saheli 09.19.05 at 9:41 pm

But what does any of that have to do with putting humans in orbit? These satellites are automated and remotely operated. You wouldn’t want a human anywhere near them, for reasons that ought to be obvious.

Hubble was repaired by space walk at least once.

My understanding is that’s the kind of mission astronauts dream of. They can proudly point to any Hubble picture and truthfully say it wouldn’t have happened without them.

25

Saheli 09.19.05 at 9:42 pm

Sorry, didn’t close the tag.

26

Saheli 09.19.05 at 9:42 pm

Did I close the tag?

27

M. Gordon 09.19.05 at 10:38 pm

Sorry, I said, “NASA does very little useful science these days, it seems like…” which is patently false. I have friends who work for NASA, they do great science. I was referring specifically to manned space missions. With respect to “Well, someday we’ll need it!” Then let’s do it when we need it. By then it will be cheaper, easier, and more interesting. The way things are going in this country, I’m not even sure we’re going to last that long. And with respect to the coolness factor: That’s the whole problem.

28

Redshift 09.19.05 at 10:40 pm

The comments here seem to miss the real point of the moon launch. It is a project with little scientific value, but by instituting it without increasing NASA funding, it kills all the other research NASA does. Research on inconvenient things like climate change, and the rest of the earth observation program.

I think that’s true, but there’s more to it than that. It’s also a way to start on Rumsfeld’s vision for militarizing space without actually talking to the American people about it. The fact that it’s combined with an initiative that was designed to make Bush look like Kennedy is just the icing on the cynical cake.

29

Jim Harrison 09.19.05 at 11:20 pm

The manned space program has always run on fantasies. The purported scientific benefits are largely excuses. Which is why it will be terribly difficult to end the manned program. It isn’t something anybody needs, but it is something that lots of people want.

30

Dan Kervick 09.19.05 at 11:28 pm

Kieren,

Since this is a question that is, at least in part, about the best way of spending dollars on federally funded research and technology projects, it would be good to see some science involved in the discussion. Do you know of any studies that have evaluated the moon base proposal in terms of its likely scientific or technological payoffs?

I find it hard to believe that the project will be “impotent” in producing anything of lasting scientific value. Building bases on the moon is a very challenging undertaking; it is hard to imagine how it could be accomplished without a great deal of research and technological innovation. So surely the project would produce something of lasting scientific value. An important question is how much value might it produce in comparison with other investments that might be made instead.

However, saying (with contradictory ben) that we need to learn about how to colonize bodies in our own solar system as preparation for sending settlers to distant stars stikes me as a bit like saying that we need to develop more rust-removing solvents to prepare for the day when our bodies are made entirely out of metal parts; or that we need to learn how to build better communications towers to prepare for the day when we exist as pure minds transmitted here and there as streams of electromagnetic radiation. The time scale is all wrong. The goal of sending settlers to distant stars is so remote, if indeed it will ever happen, that no substantial investment of limited resources for research could possibly be justified at this stage as preparatory to that remote goal.

Meanwhile back in the present, the militarization of space, and our ever-growing dependence on earth-orbiting satelites, continues apace. Surely no discussion of the motives for projects like a moon base can be isolated from discussion of the potential security ramifications of establishing sustainable bases on a very near, earth-orbiting body like the moon. And I suspect such considerations are uppermost in the minds of the people proposing and developing the project.

31

Bruce Baugh 09.20.05 at 12:39 am

Dan gets at a useful distinction: the development of new manned space technology inevitably leads to some exploitable worthwhile breakthroughs. It’s just not a cost-effective way to do so, given the constraints NASA has put itself into. And see William Langeweische’s article in Harper’s last year about the Columbia investigation to see just how bad the managerial culture there is.

My father’s a retired NASA engineer himself. He did ranging system design for the Deep Space Network, which tracks distant spacecraft. I know that he and pretty much everyone he worked with would really, really like to see the manned program do better. But likewise they all believe that it won’t. The unmanned program desperately needed a reinvention a while back, and got it, but then so much less money and status is at stake with it.

Thing about the Apollo project is that it’s a stage through which we needed to pass to get there at all. But now we’re ready for more. I’m not convinced that folks like Dick Rutin and his rivals can quite make the next stage work right now, but I am convinced that if it’s not them, it’s the wave who’ll come after them. People are ready to go up into orbit to see the sights, honeymoon, make movies, screw. They are set to do frivolous things, and to pay handsomely for the privilege. They’re also set to do serious things that fall outside the Apollo culture’s definition of serious. I’m pretty firmly of the view that NASA initiatives in manned space flight are now irrelevant, with the future having passed already into hands willing to work faster, more agilely, more soundly, and toward other goals.

In a way it’s a handy synecdoche for the US’s general march toward Third World status. NASA is now the equivalent of the Aswan or Three Gorges projects, on the manned side.

32

Contradictory Ben 09.20.05 at 3:31 am

Dan Kervick,

I agree with most of what you say, except perhaps this bit:

The goal of sending settlers to distant stars is so remote, if indeed it will ever happen, that no substantial investment of limited resources for research could possibly be justified at this stage as preparatory to that remote goal.

Call me a dreamer, but I guess I’m not as convinced it’s remote.
The proposed budget for the moon programme is $104 billion over 13 years, representing 27 cents per year per capita. When the US government has $1.82 trillion in annual revenues, does this count as a ‘substantial investment’ (passing over the question of underinvestment in the welfare state and overinvestment in killing people)?

I share the concerns of others on this thread that this administration may be the wrong administration, NASA may be the wrong organisation for this project, that federal funding may not be the way to go, and in particular that the money for this programme should not come out of funds already earmarked for scientific research.

33

Elliott Oti 09.20.05 at 5:28 am

So surely the project would produce something of lasting scientific value. An important question is how much value might it produce in comparison with other investments that might be made instead.

It will produce as much scientific value as direct investment in the areas in which a breakthrough is made, minus the non-science overhead involved in a moon rocket.

In other words, if you want to invent, say, teflon, you can award a 10 million dollar research grant to a materials science department at MIT, or you can award that 10 million dollar research grant and build a ten billion dollar rocket booster as well.

It’s your call as to which method is cheaper.

You might also say, necessity is the mother of invention, and the manned space program generates needs which would otherwise not be generated. Viewed this way, a manned space program is a 100 billion dollar idea generator which generates a moonbase, a few heavy boosters, and a hundred millions of dollars worth of spinoffs.

You could also pay me a hundred million dollars to come up with wacky research ideas, and then throw 100 billion worth of grants at universities to get them to implement them.

Your call as to which results in more science.

34

Peter 09.20.05 at 9:09 am

A “colony” on the moon will be a camping trip. Like the ISS is a camping trip. They bring all their food, water, air (etc) with them. No colony on the moon will be anything other than a camping trip until they can build their own space suits and grow their own food.

In the US, we have this myth of the pioneer “who did it all.” No. They were at the end of a supply chain that stretched back to the East Coast. Without that logistics chain, they would and did die.

I think the epitome of the cargo cult of the individual is Thoreau. He pretended to be living by himself when he was living and writing at Walden. When he needed food, he walked to the village. When he needed tools or company, he walked to the village. He wrote about independance while using tools that he could never make himself. Just think about the axe he used. Until he could make his own axe, he was on a long term camping trip.

35

abb1 09.20.05 at 9:54 am

The proposed budget for the moon programme is $104 billion over 13 years, representing 27 cents per year per capita.

This can’t be true. 27 dollars, maybe?

36

AJ 09.20.05 at 10:10 am

This can’t be true. 27 dollars, maybe?
27 cents is correct, do the math, it isn’t that tough…

On another note, between say 1919 and 1969, we went from a couple of guys trying to get a plane off the ground to a manned moon mission.
In the next 50 years, we’ll go from a manned moon mission to a slightly improved moon mission. Sad…

37

D. Monroe 09.20.05 at 10:42 am

Ideally, the entire space flight endeavor — both the robotic and human programs — would be an international affair.

And not in the slapdash way we’ve seen with ISS but a fixed, mature, long range project to maintain and develop away-from-earth capabilities.

The robotic programs’ science benefits are obvious: we learn (perhaps critically) important things about planet formation, the space environment, the earth itself as a celestial body, our vulnerabilities to cosmic events, etc. We also gain very startling images of the other places in the solar system.

The human program, which is now a bit of a mess, must be liberated from political crap, American settler mythology and assorted other baggage and become a very long term, slow and steady project to give humanity an important capability that will prove quite useful in years and centuries to come.

Establishing a moon base now and going to Mars are pointless “camping trips” as Peter wrote…unless, that is, these excursions are part of a global effort to establish a permanent human presence throughout the solar system.

Since the will, international organizational structure, funding and maturity (aka, patience) to make this happen are sorely lacking, the American-only project to go back to the moon and beyond serves no purpose and should be resisted as a “moondoggle”.

Not because human space flight, as a concept, is useless but because the way we do it isn’t part of anything steady-on, globally shared and truly long term.

monroe

38

McDuff 09.20.05 at 11:22 am

I support the moon mission because I want us to start paying serious attention to the development of He3-He3 fusion.

At our current rate of development, I’ll be dead by the time it’s economically viable, and I dislike that prospect.

39

abb1 09.20.05 at 11:59 am

$100 billion over 10 years is $10 billion/year. Population is 300 million. Can’t be 27c/head/year, sorry.

40

AJ 09.20.05 at 12:23 pm

abb1, you are correct, mea culpa. Apparently the math is too tough for me…

41

Steve LaBonne 09.20.05 at 12:29 pm

I’m with some of the other commenters- this time there’s no “fantasy” involved; the people behind it know exactly why they want to do it. It’s not about technology development; the relatively primitive, ad-hoc proposed means are nowhere near representing several decades’ worth of technological progress over Apollo. This is a covert project to work towards future militarization of the moon. Which in turn is an excellent reason why all human spaceflight activity at NASA should be defunded, not that that will happen.

42

abb1 09.20.05 at 1:39 pm

43

contradictory ben 09.20.05 at 1:41 pm

Oops.
aj writes:

abb1, you are correct, mea culpa. Apparently the math is too tough for me…

No, aj, it’s my fault for making the error in the first place. Thanks for pointing it out abb1. That makes the programme a hundred-fold worse deal.

44

mike shupp 09.20.05 at 5:47 pm

So y’all MIGHT be willing to accept a stepped up manned space program …. if, say, it didn’t start until around 8000 AD? Or would that be too soon for most of you?

45

Bruce Baugh 09.20.05 at 6:49 pm

Out of curiosity, Mike, are you actually seeing any of the “we can’t do a manned space program until we’ve fixed all the problems on Earth” rhetoric of the sort one used to encounter in the ’70s, or did you just trot out that response because it was lying around ready to go? It doesn’t seem to have much relevance either to the question of military activity in space by an administration that’s proven itself both war-minded and incompetent, or to the issue of an institutional culture for NASA that can’t deliver safety or innovation. But it looks to me like a lot of folks here would rather have a good manned presence in space that started ten or twenty years ago.

46

Brett Bellmore 09.20.05 at 8:03 pm

“Leaving the solar system is almost certainly impossible; but if we ever figure out some loophole in the laws of physics that makes it feasible, it will be by doing science here in Earth, not by playing Commander Corey and the Space Partrol with resources badly needed here.”

Leaving the solar system requires no loopholes in the laws of physics. Voyager will do it soon enough, in fact by some standards (Crossing the Heliopause) has done it already.

Now, humans leaving the solar system DOES require some advances in technology, and probably a rather larger economic base than we have now. But that’s not the same thing as repealing the laws of physics.

I’m conflicted. I think the colonization of space is essential to the long term survival of our species, and will give us something we desperately need: A frontier. On the other hand, our government has hideously bungled the job.

Ideally they’d just get out of the way. In another generation technology will have advanced enough that space colonization will be affordable without threatening to shoot people who won’t ante up.

47

Jim Harrison 09.21.05 at 1:50 am

186,000 miles a second. It’s not only a good idea. It’s the law.

48

bad Jim 09.21.05 at 3:10 am

If our robots aren’t good enough for the exploration of nearby planets and planetesimals, we need to work on our robots. So far we haven’t seen fit to bring any of our Mars landers home. Until we think that enterprise worthwhile, we shouldn’t consider sending the sort of big, clumsy, needy creatures that God (or Nature) created.

Actually, we’re already better at designing space explorers than God (or History), since the bodies he (or it) gave us require access to a wet planet or a near simulacrum, while the explorers we’ve designed only need solar panels or batteries.

Perhaps we should work to our strengths, particularly if we’re serious about our desire to know these places better. And it just might be that better robots wouldbe handy to have around at this end of the gravity well, too.

49

McDuff 09.21.05 at 10:30 am

Maybe it’s just me, but I think I prefer the militarization of space to the militarization of Earth.

Also, fusion. But I already said that.

50

Brett Bellmore 09.21.05 at 6:00 pm

Jim, the speed of light is indeed a physical law. Are you under the impression that, if you can’t get someplace in a hurry, you can’t get there at all?

51

Jim Harrison 09.21.05 at 9:53 pm

For all I know there is indeed some way to travel between the stars. But most of the folks who blandly talk about space travel dismiss the cosmic speed limit with a cheerful, “Details!”

If space travel is indeed feasible, you have to wonder why we aren’t up to our eyebrows in aliens. Of course Earth could be the only planet in the galaxy with intelligent life. I certainly don’t know that we aren’t unique. But if there are other intelligent species and space travel is feasible, the mathematics of exponential functions pretty much guarantees that the little green men would be everwhere by now.

People who believe in space travel are like folks who argue for intelligent design. Everything that tells against their notions gets dismissed because they are not arguing to a conclusion. They are arguing from a wish.

52

sglover 09.22.05 at 11:20 am

I’d love to see NASA build a permanent base on the moon — via successive generations of robots, each generation incrementally more sophisticated than the last. It makes sense to build lunar infrastructure for an eventual sustained human space presence, and the robotics research would yield spin-offs that’d make Apollo look like an elaborate plumbing experiment. The dismaying thing about this CEV / Apollo Jr. proposal is its utter sterility and lack of imagination…

53

MBMc 09.22.05 at 11:21 am

Laughing out loud.

54

Ken 09.22.05 at 12:13 pm

All this talk of humanity needing a new frontier is useless romanticism and the talk of colonizing other planets is based on fiction, not science. What other planet in our solar system could we colonize? There are eight other planets in the solar system that, like ours, orbit the sun. The similarities end there. Atmosphere? Standing water? A temperature range that is above the freezing point of water but below its boiling point? Earth is it. Terraforming Mars or Venus? We would be hard pressed to deliberately change the climate of our own planet, let alone conjure up an atmosphere out of nothing on Mars. As for leaving our solar system to travel to another: not possible within the time frame of a human lifetime. The nearest star is four light years away, current propulsion systems, and even hypothetical future propulsion systems would not allow us to travel there at anything near the speed of light. If a craft were to accelerate to that speed at a rate that would not destroy any human body it had on board, and then deccelarate on the other end, even it it could reach 186,000 miles per second, it would take decades to reach Alpha Centuri. And what would we find once we arrived? A planet suitable for human life? Unlikely. Other stars are much further away. The colonization of the Americas was driven by profit. What could we possibly bring back from other planets that could offset the gargantuan costs of going there and coming back? If we could bring back $105 billion of gold from the moon to pay for the mission, the cost of gold on Earth would collapse.
I am all for scientifically justified missions into space. I am not for making immensely costly policy decisions based on romanticism fueled Star Trek re-runs. For $105 billion, we could build ten super-conducting super-coliders. A much better investment in terms of data yielded.

55

major tom 09.22.05 at 1:51 pm

What we really need is a Galactic Hyperdrive.

56

Erich Schwarz 09.22.05 at 4:02 pm

1. The reason we’re not “up to our eyebrows in aliens” is that the aliens were just like many of the good folk here in this comments section, and they saw no point to the “useless romanticism” of space travel. So they sat on their home planet, and sat, and sat … and then the next asteroid impact came along, and they all died like dinosaurs. But, their extinction was completely ecologically natural! So, it’s all good.

2. As for whether any “serious scientists” think manned space travel would be useful — yes, some do, specifically so that we could get critical scientific results from Mars in less than decades. For details, see:

http://genomebiology.com/2005/6/8/116

3. As for the Moondoggle: it’s not itself likely to be a useful way to promote manned space exploration, because NASA is a tax-supported government bureaucracy that has long since stopped being about developing destabilizing technologies. The details are painstakingly explicated here:

http://www.space-access.org/updates/sau112.html

If we’re serious about giving our species a long-term future, getting substantive and rapid biological research done on Mars (or Europa), or generally getting off of our rear ends, we need to encourage capitalism to develop the exploration of space for a profit — not keep wishing that NASA could work the way it did in the golden Great Society days of LBJ.

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Ken 09.22.05 at 4:52 pm

Wishful thinking, Eric. Our species has not been around since the beginning, it will not be around til the end. Cultivating a spare planet sounds like a great idea. If it were feasible, I would be all for it. I loved science fiction as a kid. But how do you get around the fact that there are no other habitable planets in our solar system? I tried to follow your Mars link but with no success. Seriously, if we can do nothing about excess CO2 in our atmosphere but wait millennia for it to be absorbed by the ocean and plant life, how are we supposed to create an atmosphere wholesale on Mars? Your reasoning seems to be that we have made great technological progress over the past two centuries, so all we have to do is wait long enough and we will see any barriers to realizing the products of our imagination melt away. Anyone who says otherwise is the equivalent of people who told Columbus the world was flat. Sorry, but unless you can at least explain how interstellar travel could possibly be feasible given our current understanding of physics, that’s mere romanticism. As for unleashing the power of capitalism, my question still stands. What could we find on other planets that could offset the immense cost of transportation (let alone the cost of sustaining human life in space, in a vacuum, with no atmosphere to protect from radiation)?

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