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Back to the Moon?

Hey, while we're thinking about it: Whatever happened to Tang???

NASA announced Monday that we're going back to the moon. NASA announces this every few years in hopes that someone will believe it. There are great reasons for establishing a lunar outpost if you are going to become a space-faring civilization with the whole solar system in your economic sphere of influence. Number one is that the moon is small. Hence a small gravity hill to climb when launching materials into space. It's all about gravity.

Also it's all about money. Aerospace industry loves this stuff. Fiscally minded scolds will abhor it. The cost will inevitably be higher than anticipated and there will be constant squawking about why we need to do it at all. The space station is a worrisome role model. My own initial question is the same as it was a year and a half ago when I wrote about the Vision in the magazine: Is this really going to happen? Or is this make-believe?

Mike Griffin insists we're going. He's the ultimate true-believer, and if anyone can get us beyond Low Earth Orbit, it's Griffin. He's the big thinker. He's the failure-is-not-an-option guy. From Marc Kaufman's story:

"You will -- if you can live long enough -- see the resources of the solar system similarly incorporated into humanity's sphere of influence," Griffin said. "In the long run, that's what the expansion of humankind into space is all about."

The skeptical view: "It's good to have such an enthusiast like Griffin at NASA, but that whole messianic vision is pretty far from the current state of technology," said Robert Kirshner, an astronomy professor at Harvard University and past president of the American Astronomical Society. "Many of us worry that it will suck the juice out of other very promising projects to learn more about our universe."

Check out all the dyspeptic comments appended by readers to Kaufman's story. When one reader writes, "why does this seem so...irrelevant?" he/she probably speaks for many out there. The timing isn't great. We have terrestrial problems. Let us recall that Vietnam and attendant pessimism truncated Apollo.

[We interrupt this item with an instant summary of the Iraq Study Group report, based on a full seven or eight minutes of skimming the text: Split the diff betwixt stay-the-course and cut-and-run, throw up a prayer for broad domestic unity on the way forward, plead for international cooperation, be realistic, be more candid about realities on ground, bring in all interested parties, negotiate, settle, agree, build consensus, and just try to get along for once. It's a bit of a grab bag.] [Best quote: "If there were foreign forces in New Jersey, Tony Soprano would be an insurgent leader."]

The process also may be too incremental. (I can't imagine it's speedy enough for Zubrin & friends.) That pace might make sense for something that's inevitably going to happen, but the public hasn't really gotten behind this thing yet. The drawn-out lunar program gives opponents more time to put the kibosh on it. It puts people on the moon in, what, 2019? Hardly a crash program. The really interesting place is Mars (no?), which will remain, for the time being, out of reach of human astronauts.

NASA says there are many reasons to go to the moon again. Lots of good stuff on this at NASA Watch. Here's the transcript of Monday's briefing.

A quick note about the military use of space. We give NASA a lot of ink -- another front-page story about going to the moon! -- but tend to overlook the fact that the U.S. military spends more on space than NASA does.

From Max Boot in The New Atlantis (in an interesting piece called "The Paradox of Military Technology"):

"In 2001 the U.S. had an estimated 100 military satellites and 150 commercial satellites in orbit, as much as the rest of the world combined. The U.S. spends more than $15 billion a year on military space, perhaps 90 percent of the global total. The most advanced U.S. surveillance satellites can reportedly pick out a six-inch object from 150 miles above."

Now here's Jennifer Ouellette'sCocktail Party Physics blog with an explanation of why we should go into space:

"The main reason to go is the view. Many of the Apollo and shuttle astronauts have talked about the effects of seeing the whole globe at once, and I've often thought it should be a requirement that any newly elected leader take a little trip into space to, uh, broaden his or her horizons. Talk about a radical change in perspective."

More Achenblog on NASA. And here's the item on my keynote talk earlier this year at the National Space Club's Goddard Memorial dinner.

From yesterday's boodle:

ScienceTim lists reasons to go back to the moon, then writes:

"I am a scientist. I like science. I think it is one of the most important features of human society. However, remote exploration with unmanned probes is a good bit like spending all your time exploring the world by watching Animal Planet and the Discovery Channel and Nova. Educational, yes; but sterile, unless you eventually get out of the house and go explore that big world on your own. It's just a matter of how much cable do you want to watch before you go and do something yourself."

Error Flynn: "I grew up on the Mercury and Gemini missions and the first thing I ever wanted to be was an astronaut, so I'm partial to it. But the benefits we've seen lately of the unmanned probes is astounding at a very reasonable cost, and I don't think it's worth the $$$ at this point to be establishing bases and risking lives."

RD Padouk:
"I am afraid the the major accomplishment of a lunar colony will be to keep itself alive - much like the space station. Imagine a probe so advanced that its data stream could mimic the sensations of physical presence. I wouldn't mind feeling as if I were standing on the moons of Saturn - and sharing that experience with a few billion friends. Space exploration also seems a logical motivation for advanced AI. Even if the intelligence we send to the planets is electronic and not biological, I would be happy. That is, so long as there were some good stories to be told."

By Joel Achenbach  |  December 5, 2006; 9:17 AM ET
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