Getting America Back to the Moon

August 10th, 2010 at 4:02 pm | 47 Comments |

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In recent months, health the Obama administration has scrapped the Bush administration’s plan to get NASA back into manned exploration of the moon, help and instead has focused on helping the private sector develop the ability to send cargo and, in due course, people into low orbit around the Earth.

That shift sparked a division among conservative space observers, between those who lamented the scaling-back of national ambition and those who welcomed the relatively free-market approach to orbit (and the refreshing contrast with the administration’s policies on Earth). There has been speculation that Obama may not really care about space policy — and perhaps better so than having him focus on it.

Obama’s effort to commercialize orbital services is laudable, whether or not he knows or cares what he’s doing. Lately, this push has encountered some resistance in Congress, though, and there is a danger that an overly NASA-centric approach to low-Earth orbit will prevail. It is only if commercial companies are allowed a major role that there will be a reliable capacity to not only get astronauts to the International Space Station but also to bring paying tourists into orbit in significant numbers as well.

What’s no less worrisome, however, is that a large, important celestial object has been eclipsed in current policymaking and political debate: the moon. Perhaps as a means of distancing itself as far as possible from the Bush approach, the Obama White House has discarded Earth’s natural satellite as a target for human exploration and development.

Consider these goals stated in the National Space Policy document, released in June:  “By 2025, begin crewed missions beyond the moon, including sending humans to an asteroid. By the mid-2030s, send humans to orbit Mars and return them safely to Earth.” That “beyond the moon” is actually the only mention of the moon in the 14-page document.

During an April appearance with astronaut Buzz Aldrin, Obama gave the moon the presidential brush-off: “Now, I understand that some believe that we should attempt a return to the surface of the moon first, as previously planned. But I just have to say pretty bluntly here: We’ve been there before. Buzz has been there. There’s a lot more of space to explore, and a lot more to learn when we do.”

That statement is painfully ignorant, for two reasons: One, the moon emphatically has not been thoroughly explored just because a dozen astronauts (only one of them, Harrison Schmitt, a professional scientist) briefly visited a handful of landing sites there decades ago. As it happens, there’s a vast storehouse of scientific knowledge still waiting to be discovered on the moon, including data about the early solar system (preserved deep in the impact craters on the geologically inactive world). Also, any telescope placed on the moon’s far side would be uniquely positioned to peer into the universe.

Two, the moon offers not only a scientific payoff but a far broader economic and societal one. Consider some of the things that might be done there in the coming decades. Tourist ships might land on the moon’s surface or settle into lunar orbit (and earlier, remote-controlled rovers operated by paying customers on Earth could be a profitable business). Clean energy could be another lunar industry, with helium-3 fueling nuclear-fusion reactors, or solar arrays built from lunar material transmitting to Earth.

We don’t know what all the possibilities are. How might ceramics, say, develop in a low-gravity environment? What better place to store fragile or precious items than in an airless lunar cave?

What should the government be doing about such futuristic possibilities now? I suggest three things:

First, restore the moon as a target for civil space exploration. Let proposed lunar exploration missions compete, on grounds of scientific merit, with alternative proposals for asteroid exploration and such.

Second, extend the Obama emphasis on commercializing low-Earth orbit to the moon as well. NASA just took a small step in this direction by announcing a program to buy data from future private-sector lunar probes. Such incentives could also be part of future human exploration of the moon (and asteroids).

Third, develop a framework for eventual property rights on the moon. The Outer Space Treaty of 1967 prohibits claims of national sovereignty on celestial bodies, but does not ban private claims. One can imagine a system whereby governments would multilaterally recognize such claims (by entities that have, say, explored a lunar parcel to a specified degree of precision) without asserting sovereignty.

In short, we need a new space policy that doesn’t forget about the moon.

Recent Posts by Kenneth Silber

47 Comments so far ↓

  • cporet

    And lower taxes on the richest Americans can pay for it. Win-win!

  • easton

    instead has focused on helping the private sector develop the ability to send cargo and, in due course, people into low orbit around the Earth.

    that damn Socialist Obama, always leaving things up to private enterprise…oh wait…

    Doing a cost to benefit analysis, the price of going to the moon just ain’t there. I mean, tourism? Really? Just so a few billionaires can get their jollies (and lets face it, the whole thing reeks of spending a huge amount of tax dollars for the benefit of a very, very few, if billionaires want to go, let them get together and finance it themselves). As to the science, again, is it really worth the expense? We can much more easily pay for unmanned ships there, and with the closeness of the moon robot rovers can be far more responsive.

    And lets not jump ahead of ourselves with fusion power. To spend a billion for a million in energy is silly.

  • jg bennet

    IS OBAMA A STEELY-EYED MISSILE MAN? Could be if you look deeper into the concept and potential payoffs for dropping the moon and heading for an asteroid.

    Robert Lamb reports on a lecture given by Vatican astronomer Guy J. Consolmagno.
    Can you put a price tag on an asteroid? Sure you can. We know of roughly 750 S-class asteroids with a diameter of at least 1 kilometer. Many of these pass as near to the Earth as our own moon — close enough to reach via spacecraft. As a typical asteroid is 10 percent metal, Brother Consolmango estimates that such an asteroid would contain 1 billion metric tons of iron. That’s as much as we mine out of the globe every year, a supply worth trillions and trillions of dollars. Subtract the tens of billions it would cost to exploit such a rock, and you still have a serious profit on your hands.

    Why mine asteroids? To get rich. To increase humanity’s real wealth. Many asteroids are rich in industrial-use metals. The platinum-group metals (PGMs) are particularly attractive due to their high cost, limited terrestrial availability (South Africa supplies 75% of the world’s platinum and over 80% of its rhodium; Russia supplies most of the rest, 14% of the platinum and 12% of the rhodium), and their relative abundance in certain classes of asteroids. A single, 1500’ Near Earth Asteroid, of a common type, contains tens of billions of dollars worth of PGMs, as well as tons of iron, nickel and other useful materials.

    We need the minerals
    The U.S. Geological Survey reports that the United States now imports 100% of 18 industrial minerals. The National Academy notes that the platinum group metals—used in catalytic converters and hydrogen fuel cells—are “most critical” for industrial development, with many other often unrecognized uses. Some projections show that terrestrial platinum reserves may be depleted within decades. If you want to be a 21st Century billionaire Mine Asteroids.

  • Carney

    When considering the Moon vs. Mars, a useful analogy is Greenland vs. North America in the prior era of exploration. The Moon is closer, and we got there first, but it is a barren, bleak world. By contrast, Mars is a far more interesting and worthwhile destination.

    Unlike the Moon:

    Mars has an atmosphere, enabling aerobraking for orbital capture and parachute-assisted descent. The atmosphere also greatly moderates the Moon’s baking/freezing temperature extremes, and provides some radation shielding. Most crucially, the atmosphere is a near-inexhaustible source of easily obtained raw material for easily made water, oxygen, and rover fuel, even rocket fuel for the return journey. This makes it unnecessary to haul every gram of vital material over there, cutting weight, and makes extended stays, even cut off from Earth, much more logistically feasible. Even better, the soil and atmosphere (when lightly pressurized and heated) are viable media for plant growth, and in an incredible coincidence, Mars has a 24 hour day-night cycle — so inflatable greenhouses are possible. Mars has, in abundance, all the elements needed for agriculture and industry, including carbon, nitrogen, and others, and because it has had a complex geological history, has valuable and useful metals concentrated in ore form. In the long run, Mars can be “terraformed” and made into much more Earthlike world with a warmer, thicker atmosphere, running water, outdoor plants, and a shirtsleeve environment.

    Mars is thus a potential second homeworld for humanity, with a total land area of this new frontier equalling all the continents of Earth combined. America, with its labor shortage, created a high wage workforce and a pragmatic can do frontier culture emphasizing results rather than Europe’s social restrictions and guild rules. Ultimately, the freedom of the frontier resulted in a political and social culture of liberty that returned across the Atlantic and greatly benefited the Old World in ways it never anticipated. As our society becomes increasingly sclerotic, closed-off, hidebound, and stifled by bureacracy, and as Malthusians convinced of a future of declining per-person resources mandating increasing regimentation to prevent conflict are trying to gain power, we would do well to open up a new world of open land and new resources.

    By comparison the Moon is a poor, bleak world, with nearly no carbon or nitrogen, very little water, and a paucity of other crucial substances, many of which are only available through energy intensive techniques such as rock-melting, or sifting billions of parts of soil. Its hard vacuum and direct exposure to the full force of the Sun and utter cold of empty space make it a much harsher and less forgiving environment. Cheap inflatable greenhouse agriculture is impossible, with a 2 week day-night cycle, and the need for ultra strong thick glass.

    The most important difference, though, is that Mars may have once had life on it. If we can find life there, or its fossilized remains, that will be powerful evidence that life, at least in simple form, is a general phenomenon in the universe. Going to the Moon would enable us to date a few craters, which is nice – worthy of a paper in a geology journal — but Mars can help answer one of the most profound questions ever: “Are we alone in the universe?”

    And about practicalities: We are far more ready to go to Mars now than we were to go to the Moon in 1961 when Kennedy committed us to get there within 10 years. Thus an intelligently designed mission architecture, one that eschews exotic propulsion, detours, and distractions, can easily get us to launch ready status for Mars within ten years of program start. The journey itself would take only six months, about the same as a current cruise on a nuclear submarine, or the trip to Australia from England in the late 1700s under far harsher conditions. The “Mars Direct” plan used by the Bush Administration as its baseline would cost about $5 billion a year, a fraction of NASA’s $18 billion annual budget. There really are no excuses not to do this, just a lack of vision and leadership.

  • rectonoverso

    And what exactly is a manned mission supposed to be doing on the moon? It had propaganda value in the 1960s (a beautiful example of statist central planning btw), but today I fail to see the point.

  • Oldskool

    There is virtually nothing men can do on the moon that robots can’t. Same for asteroids. I bet we could put a telescope on the dark side of the moon without anyone leaving the earth. Walking around is old technology.

    Of course if he DID decide to send people back, you can cue the howls from the same fiscal hawks who exploded the deficit.

  • Oldskool

    Carney // Aug 10, 2010 at 4:42 pm “Mars is thus a potential second homeworld for humanity, ”

    I disagree. I think it would take longer to get it up and running as a habitable environment than we have left as a species. And if it ever did become habitable it would’t last without a magnetic field which is why it turned to dust eons ago. Our money would be better spent here, making this rock a better place to hang out.

  • sinz54

    Oldskool: Our money would be better spent here, making this rock a better place to hang out.
    I disagree.

    Throughout history, exploration has ultimately yielded benefits which even the original explorers could never have foreseen.

    Could those first European colonists to settle on the Eastern Seaboard have ever predicted that they were laying the groundwork for what would become the world’s mightiest superpower in just two centuries’ time, eclipsing all the former empires of Europe? They didn’t–but they sure knew that it’s always better to have more land than less.

    It’s a good thing that the Spaniards, the Dutch, the British, the French didn’t have your attitude–or else this entire continent of North America would still belong to the Indians, instead of belonging to us.

    And science has also advanced tremendously through exploration. For example, Darwin developed his Theory of Evolution with scientific evidence he gathered on his voyage to the Galapagos Islands.

    Having said that, I believe that the American public–who would have to foot the bill for any more space exploration–aren’t going to want to go back to the Moon. They’ve seen it. It’s an airless, waterless, lifeless chunk of rock. Despite what Mr. Silber says, the Moon isn’t going to tell us about the formation of the Solar System either. Evidence now suggests that the Moon was formed later, by the collision of a planetoid (Theia) with the Earth, which threw out enough material to condense to form the Moon. If you want to learn about the origin of the Solar System, you’ll have to visit the comets and asteroids.

    Science fiction, from Star Trek to Star Wars, continues to fascinate millions of people, especially the young. Why?
    Because such stories typically depict a Universe filled with life. Life provides the romance, the conflict, and the wonder of learning about other possibilities. And learning about other life gives us a standard to compare ourselves to.

    So I believe that this should be the goal for NASA: To discover extraterrestrial life, either present or past (fossils). It doesn’t have to be intelligent life just yet; even microbes would do. The discovery of such life could spark a revolution in science, and tell us much more about our own origins.

    Given what we now know about the Moon’s geologic history, we’re not going to find any evidence of life there.

    Mars has to be the first goal. It’s the only other planet in the Solar System which had running water (and may still have some).

    Some scientists claim to have found evidence of fossils on Mars, that were carried off that planet by meteorites which hit the Earth. Even Bill Clinton had said that such a discovery–if it were proven–would be truly momentous, the first real evidence that life on Earth is not some quintillion-to-one cosmic fluke.

    We really should land on Mars and check it out in detail. First, this should be done with unmanned probes capable of sample return–taking samples of Martian rocks and soil and returning them safely to the Earth. Such unmanned voyages might be cheaper, in inflation-adjusted real dollars, then the shorter but manned voyages to the Moon were in the 1960s.

    (In case you’re wondering: I very much doubt that Mars currently harbors life. Once life takes hold, it powerfully affects the atmosphere and hydrosphere, as life deposits its waste gases there. For example, most of the oxygen in our own atmosphere is made by plants. But Mars’ atmosphere is carbon dioxide, whose existence can easily be accounted for with non-biological geological processes, just as on Venus.)

  • Oldskool

    “It’s a good thing that the Spaniards, the Dutch, the British, the French didn’t have your attitude”

    Um, there’s just a little bit of difference between sailing and terra-forming another planet. I happen to believe there has been and may still be life on Mars. All that methane is coming out of something but who cares if men find it or robots. We all agree it’s out there somewhere, if not Mars then Europa, but it’s not the game-changer it used to be. I think biology is one of the less interesting byproducts of physics & chemistry.

  • Bebe99

    There is little value in returning to the moon which has few resources of value. It has the same makup as the earth–with fewer of the valuable minerals. Mars is a world whose core has cooled, it is dying. It may once have supported an abudance of life, but it can’t now. Space exploration is expensive, and needs to pay for itself. Right now the asteroids are where the valuable minerals will be found that can pay for more space exploration.

    I see that even when Obama does something a conservative might like as in promoting private space industry–You assume the only reason he did it is that he doesn’t know what he’s doing, or he didn’t care enough to even consider it (maybe he flipped a coin?). It couldn’t be that he thought about it and decided that would be the best way to handle it. I think your argument is weakened by this kind of cheap propaganda, because people like me will think you are an idiot right off the bat.

  • rbottoms

    Been there. Done that. Got the Tang.

    Time to work on catching asteroids. It is harder to do and might have a deeper impact.
    (Get it, Deep Impact. HeHe.)

  • anniemargret

    Sinz: Totally Agree.

    Futhermore…this planet is on the path to unsustainability for life. We are now seeing the depletion of life in our oceans and seas, not to mention mankind’s penchant for polluting our water and destroying fragile ecosystems so important for ecological balance for our species.

    Anyone paying attention? We are not going to have a habitable planet at the rate we are going, and all the ‘free market efforts’ will do squat because once you damage the planet, there is no going back.

    I was disappointed in Obama’s rejection of advancement into space exploration. We need to move beyond space shuttles.

    I used to think our oceans could perhaps be colonized (remember the wonderful Epcot Center ideas?), but we are heading towards so much contamination on earth itself, that living below the oceans would become virtually a prison, particularly if a nuclear holocaust eventually plays out.

    The only remaining relief would be to colonize space – either with massive space stations, Mars, or the moon if it could terraformed. (Yes, I read too much sci fi sometimes)….pardon for saying this badly, but am attempting to be serious.

    Here’s another serious subject which no one touched upon. Stephen Hawking himself warned against alien contact. While some of you might be laughing, I suggest you do not. I have been a student of that possibility for long, long time, in communication with scientists and theoretical physicists. The possibility not only exists but is probable.

    Mankind must start look up and out . We need to have some vision, and prepare for worst case scenarios including alien attack. I will leave you with Hawking’s warnings for humanity:

    “Stephen Hawking has revealed he strongly believes in aliens and warned that Earth could be at risk from an invasion.

    In a documentary series, the renowned astrophysicist argued that it is ‘perfectly rational’ to assume intelligent life exists elsewhere in the universe.

    And in an extraordinary series of assertions, he said Earth might be at risk from what he imagines to be ‘massive ships’ which could try to colonise our planet and plunder our resources.”

    Read more:

  • Oldskool

    “this planet is on the path to unsustainability for life”

    I am also fatalistic but “Mars is a world whose core has cooled”. Same for the moon. Cool core, no magnetic field, no protection from radiation, no protection from solar wind, no atmosphere, not much chance of creating one. Much more feasible to redecorate this place.

  • anniemargret

    oldskool: I share your fatalism. But you cannot ‘redecorate’ what you have rendered inhabitable. The way I see it, once the oceans go, we go. And we’re heading in that direction.

    Anyway, even your idea was viable, it would require cooperation and compromise. Can you imagine *that* happening in our lifetime? Me either.

  • Tribunus Plebis

    There is a fundamental question that David Frum doesn’t acknowledge in his piece, and that President Obama probably doesn’t recognize: After a long hiatus in manned spaceflight beyond Earth orbit, the next vector of exploration will determine how robust the human space effort will be for at least a century. Given the short-term political horizon of parliamentary democracies, and the corruption and eventual unpopularity of most authoritarian regimes, only a coalition of technologically capable open societies is likely to have the means necessary to sustain a decades-long program of serious space exploration, and those nations’ leaders will have to sell the vision of the effort to tax-paying populations. To do that, the vision had better be exciting.

    Regrettably the moon is not exciting. Build, at great expense, a sizable station on the Moon, and the excitement of the first internet videos will last for, oh, about ten days. Visually, it has about the same appeal to one’s imagination as Bayonne, New Jersey. And except for rich tourists, scientists, and mining engineers, it’s not going to attract any visitors seen on Entertainment Tonight except perhaps Tom Hanks.

    Mars is another story. First, it’s an actual planet, and a half-century of novels and movies have made Mars seem intriguing — the Red Planet. Second, there are more risks associated with getting there, and the self-supporting survival requirements of a station/outpost are more serious because of the distance involved — all of which makes for some degree of drama. Public interest would not be as difficult to sustain, particularly if a few videographer/citizen journalists went along on the first expedition. And that’s what it should be called, an expedition, not a “mission”.

    But ultimately Mars would not be saleable unless the vision propounded to justify the cost of going there were bold, unless it defined Mars as the first major step in creating a new future — to explore the entire solar system over the rest of the century and allow many of our children’s children to do the exploring and settling. Only a vision of that breadth would be the 2012 equivalent of John Kennedy’s vision of putting men on the moon in ten years. It is time to shed the instrumentalist view of space — slicing the program into segments that are supposed to pay off in economic and scientific increments, which are of great interest only to policymakers and corporations. It’s time to make the space program much more than a program of techno-geeks and flyboys, but instead a program of human exploration that frankly acknowledges that Mars and the later destinations will not merely service the material or scientific interests of our elites, but will draw millions of us into the effort to make it possible and thousands of us off the planet forever.

    Obama is right to downgrade the moon, but he may never know why.

  • Kevin B

    Throughout history, exploration has ultimately yielded benefits which even the original explorers could never have foreseen.

    Could those first European colonists to settle on the Eastern Seaboard have ever predicted that they were laying the groundwork for what would become the world’s mightiest superpower in just two centuries’ time, eclipsing all the former empires of Europe? They didn’t–but they sure knew that it’s always better to have more land than less.

    It’s a good thing that the Spaniards, the Dutch, the British, the French didn’t have your attitude–or else this entire continent of North America would still belong to the Indians, instead of belonging to us.A good thing for whom? The Spanish? The Dutch? The British? The French? The Indians?

    Whatever decisions we make now, the people who end up the winners in the future will look back on our decisions and say, “I’m glad they decided A instead of B because if they chose B it would have been someone else in charge.”

    But we missed the future in which Native Americans built a worldwide civilization where everyone was better off than they are now. Don’t you wish you could go back and stop Columbus and Cabot and all those other pesky explorers who ruined it for them?

  • Hop

    Carney wrote: “By comparison the Moon is a poor, bleak world, with nearly no carbon or nitrogen, very little water, and a paucity of other crucial substances, many of which are only available through energy intensive techniques such as rock-melting, or sifting billions of parts of soil.”

    This isn’t true.

    Chandrayaan and LRO have detected abundant water at the poles.

    Sheets of ice two meters thick. 600 million tonnes at the north pole.

  • Paul Spudis

    This post is a good start on laying out all of the reasons why a lunar return is important but it misses a key and critical area. By returning to and building a sustainable presence on the Moon, we enable routine access to all of cislunar space (i.e., the zone of space between Earth and Moon), where all of our space satellite assets reside (e.g., weather, remote sensing, GPS, communications, national security)

    Currently, we operate in space with a “design-build-launch-abandon” template. But virtually ALL of our economic, scientific, and national security assets in space — satellites upon which billions of dollars critically depend — are inaccessible and unprotectable. By developing a system that can go to the Moon and refuel there (using the millions of tons of water ice that Hop mentions above to make rocket propellant), we completely change the paradigm of space faring. We develop new, reusable and extensible space systems. We expand and maintain satellite assets indefinitely. We become a true space faring species, as opposed to sending one-off, PR stunt missions to exotic destinations that, once attained, are then abandoned for the next stunt destination.

    The new space policy of the Obama administration isn’t new — it is simply the old Apollo template applied to someplace else. Instead, lunar return under the Vision for Space Exploration that we were pursuing enabled new techniquess of space travel by learning how to harvest and use the resources of the Moon.

    I elaborate on this argument at length in this essay:

    I also laid out the three principal reasons why the Moon is an important destination (i.e., it’s close, it’s interesting, and it’s useful) in my blog:

  • kensilber

    Tribunus Plebis: Please note it was I, Ken Silber, who wrote the post, not David Frum.

    Paul Spudis: Your point is well-taken regarding cislunar space; thanks for adding that to the discussion.

    sinz54: I said the moon holds valuable data about the “early solar system” (not the “formation” of the solar system), which is true. Since you’re interested in how life arose, you should be interested in what chemical and geologic conditions existed in the first billion or so years of the solar system, and the moon with its lack of atmosphere and geologic activity offers a record of that.

  • sinz54

    anniemargaret: Stephen Hawking himself warned against alien contact. While some of you might be laughing, I suggest you do not.
    I am laughing–but not for the reason you think.

    All of a sudden, there are a lot of folks on the Left (like yourself, like the scientist P.Z. Myers) who are urging caution when it comes to searching for extraterrestrial life. And that’s truly ironic.

    On this planet, anybody who suggests that radical Islamists threaten our way of life in America are denounced by the Left as “Islamophobes” and “neocons” and “militarists” and even “bigots.” Even though, unlike space aliens, radical Islamists really do exist and really have done damage (take a trip to New York City and see Ground Zero for yourselves).

    Yet these self-same folks on the Left now seem to be Alienophobes. They fear contact with an extraterrestrial alien civilization, even though they have long pooh-poohed any threat from that other alien civilization based out of Riyadh and Islamabad and Tehran.

    For myself, I am fully confident that we will find ways to handle any space aliens we contact. Just like we handled the American Indians on the North American continent.

    To paraphrase the Joker from the 1989 Batman movie:

    Just wait till they get a load of us.

  • anniemargret

    sinz: You’ve got to be kidding.

    First to equate 15 Muslim radicals who attacked us on 9/11 to the entire billion+ Muslim world as ‘they are against us’ is again… just a bit of hyperbole. No doubt there are Muslims that want to kill us. But sorry, you can try to call anyone (even a Republican) who doesn’t want to equate an entire race/ethnic/religious group of people as evil, or liberals as somehow not totally in reality of what happened on 9/11 and by who – that argument is specious.

    C’mon you’re a smart guy. Are you really this myopic?

    You love smearing entire groups of people (in this case, ‘you liberals’ as if we are like the Borg, we are all into groupthink, or that anyone who differs from your sweeping generalizations or if we can differentiate between Radical Islam and all Muslims) as anti-American or some other such canard…. pooh! Double Pooh!

    Alienophobe? I will say this…I take Hawking seriously as should any astronomer or physicist who is not joking about some type of non-human intelligence. We are past the giggle phase on that one, or should be.

    As for your statement: “we will find ways to handle any space aliens we contact.” No way, no how.

    If ‘they find us, *they* are our superiors.* This is primer 1 on space aliens. If aliens are proven or will be proven, our technology would be kindergarten compared to a 31st century physics that they use. We would be powerless, unless we want to blow up the planet and ourselves to prove something.

    We haven’t a prayer against an advanced race of beings from Zeta Reticulae…. at least techologically. Of course we may be more advanced spiritually, emotionally that might give us an edge or a way out . But can our black ops take out theirs? Not likely.

    Anyway, we’re into tribal warfare on this planet – we haven’t emotionally or spiritually evolved since caveman days, sad to say. And *That* is what is holding us back now and will continue to hold us back as a species in control of ourselves and this pale blue dot called home.

  • anniemargret

    Paul Spudis: Great post.

  • Frogmorton

    As a “please don’t spend my money foolishly” conservative I applaud your presidents goal of outsourcing low earth orbit trucking to private industry. The issue of deep space and lunar exploration is another matter altogether. There are some who think we fully understand the moon based on evidence from a half ton of surface rock. Not even close. Remotes will give us a partial picture but “Only a man can fully appreciate the moon in terms understandable to other men” I believe is what astronaut Gus Grissom said. The important thing to remember is it should not be up to the taxpayers of any one nation to foot the bill for this endeavour. The conquest of space will be a benefit to all humanity so none of us should balk when asked to pony up the dough.

  • anniemargret

    frogmorton: so true. Also, we only explored one half of the moon. What’s on the other side? Before giving up the moon as a source for resources and/or terraforming, we should have the all the data.

    The time to explore space is now. Instead of the trillions being spent on unnecessary wars we could be putting money where it is more needed – space. Or we could wait until Russia or China gets their foot on that door, then find ourselves playing catch-up.

  • Carney

    Hop, that article is a complete farce. Among its many howlers:

    “The Moon is the key to sustainable human presence in space. Its resources enable us to create a reusable, sustainable transportation system, one that can routinely access not only the Moon, but all points of cislunar space. Once established, such a system can be used to go forward into the Solar System.”

    Even if cans of rocket fuel were lying around on the Moon, free for anyone to come by and use (and they aren’t) and even if a fully functional and manned spaceport were there waiting for us to use it (and there isn’t), it STILL wouldn’t make sense to use the Moon as a “jumping off point” to anywhere else. The cost in fuel of going there, slowing down for orbital capture, landing, and taking off again totally negate any benefit of its lower gravity

    If you want to go to Mars, GO TO MARS. That’s why the “Mars Direct” plan is called “Mars Direct”.

  • Bill White

    I largely agree with the comments made by Dr. Paul Spudis above however I would supplement his comments with my own assertion that the deployment of a network of fuel depots both in Earth orbit (LEO) and more importantly at the Earth Moon LaGrange points (EML-1 & EML-2) would greatly facilitate access to the lunar surface as well as exploration beyond the Earth-Moon system.

    A link to a Wikipedia primer on LaGrange Points:

    And, a link to a table of cis-lunar delta v requirements (that being the “geography” of space)

    EML-1 & EML-2 are massively favored as transportation hubs by virtue of the interactions of gravity from the Earth, Moon and Sun.

    Robert Heinlein famously said/wrote that LEO was halfway to anywhere. Well okay, but EML-1 & EML-2 are 80% of the way to anywhere.

  • Carney

    Empty space is not a destination. Other worlds are.

  • Bill White

    @ Carney

    Departing from an EML point will get you to Mars with lower overall delta v, even without any lunar ISRU fuel. Assemble the Mars vessel at EML-1 or EML-2 using highly efficient trajectories to travel from LEO to EML-2. See for example this paper by Jeffrey Parker.

    Add lunar ISRU fuel and the savings are enormous.

    I know Dr. Robert Zubrin believes we can go to Mars without on-orbit assembly of the mission but a great many people disagree with him and Ares V class HLVs do not appear to be politically viable.

    An EML-1 depot would also facilitate access to Mars, the Moon and the NEOs all of which are valid destinations.

  • medinnus

    Sinz’ analogy of us to aliens like the Europeans and the Indians is correct, but only if you position us as the Indians…

  • Carney

    Bill White, who, specifically, says it is impossible to go to Mars without on-orbit assembly (OOA)? What laws of physics does a simple, direct mission violate? I would note that this is the only way anyone has ever done any successful interplanetary mission, manned or unmanned.

    NASA itself agreed with Zubrin by adapting Mars Direct into its Design Reference Mission, which is most notable for the purpose of our exchange in its total excising of OOA, having only an Apollo-style rendezvous for the return journey.

    As for the political non-viability of an HLV, it is in fact the Obama policy of deliberately destroying our heavy lift capability for zero total budget savings that is ferociously controversial, and the Democratic-controlled Senate recently passed, ***by unanimous consent***, NASA reauthorization with a provision MANDATING the retention of HLV, in a direct face-slap to the Administration.

    It’s below cretinous to claim any fuel savings, or any merit whatsoever, in OAA.

    Multiplying per-mission launches drastically increases per-mission risk. Any launch failure in the string of necessary launches means the entire mission fails. In fact, even a delay in one of the launches, a not unlikely prospect due to weather and other factors, means the entire mission fails, as the orbiting fuel boils away and other consumables decline.

    Also, you have to launch MANY many more missions total to make and get to the lunar ISRU fuel, or set up LEO or deep space stations, fuel depots, factories, and the whole rest of the pointless paraphernalia. The result is a gigantic net loss in fuel, to zero gain.

  • Oldskool

    I think people are plenty happy seeing pics from the surface of other planets and moons as opposed to the drama of seeing people put their lives in danger. After all, is there any kind of science that requires people to be on site? That’s not rhetorical. The Mars rovers had a huge payoff but if people were to do the same thing the cost would multiply by a factor of what, 100? 1000? And the Mars orbiter still sends back data such as big areas of methane from an unknown source.

    We could go there in person but the question is why should we. Same for the moon. Lets send rovers back there and to new places like Europa which may have rust colored biology on it’s surface.

  • Carney

    Oldskool, the Mars rovers inch along at pathetically slow speeds. Put this another way: a human rockhound can cover far more ground in a day or so than they’ve been able to do in their entire multiple year stay there. Human eyes scan the ground many times per second at higher than HD resolution, and a trained human can easily pick out and pick up an interesting rock, flake it with a tool, and pop it in a bag for detailed research back at camp. That’s what they do in the Rockies all the time, and humans in simulated missions in space suits do very well also. But you could parachute huge numbers of rovers into this fossil-rich area and they would not find a single fossil until the next Ice Age, when they would be crushed by glaciers they are unable to outrun. Of course, that’s not counting their dying much sooner than that from their solar panels being covered in dust they are unable to brush off.

  • Oldskool

    Yeah, humans could do lots of things but the cost is prohibitive, imo. Just the other day I saw a large mechanical dog one lab or another has invented which moves just like one with excellent balance. Probably for military use but we’ve come along way since the Mars rovers were on the drawing board. I don’t think there’s much support for spending money to send people past earth orbit but people love fancy new gadgets. Especially when they’re cheap.

    Turns out it’s not that new.

  • Carney

    Oldskool, the cost is NOT prohibitive. Mars Direct calls for a robust program of Mars exploration, formally costed at only $55 billion over ten years, well within NASA’s $18 billion annual budget (and accounting for the usual massive government cost overruns). In other words, we don’t need to spend any more money to do this.

    And you are exactly wrong in saying there is no support for spending money to send people past Earth orbit. Nothing captures the imagination like doing that. Support for it is so strong that the Shuttle and Station were both sold and justified primarily as ways to help do that in the long run.

    To the extent that people think about space, the sense of puzzlement, letdown, squandered opportunity, wasted decades, and even frustration post-Apollo is palpable, and when presented with Mars Direct, turns to outright anger that we haven’t already done this decades ago.

    The worst part is, the Bush Administration essentially accepted Mars Direct (its post disaster Administrator was Mike Griffin, a former board member of the Mars Society), but kicked the can down the road by piddling along too long with the useless Shuttle and Station. By eschewing a JFK style short timeline, it ensured that not enough progress was made by the time its term ran out, enabling the next Administration to kill it.

  • mjones

    Quite amazing that in Silber’s post there is not a single dollar figure. And the comments barely make reference to costs.

    Let’s face it – Bush’s “plans” for returning to the moon did not include adequate budget requests for NASA, as the Augustine Commission pointed out. It was, and is, a complete fantasy. Bush had 4 budget cycles to request such funding and never did.

    Some of Silber’s suggestions for profitable lunar development are just giggle inducing:

    • helium-3 fueling of nuclear fusion reactors — since controlled nuclear fusion is always 20 years away, we still have plenty of time.

    • storing precious items in an airless lunar cave — rental storage units on the moon . . . a true sign of human development being the vanguard of life in the universe.

  • Oldskool

    Well, I’d like to see it happen before I croak. And no doubt we will one day but it’s hard to fathom with all the problems we face here. I expect they’ll find skeletons since Mars had water and an atmosphere long enough for something like fish to evolve.

  • anniemargret

    oldskool: I think it’s because of the ‘all the problems we face here’ that we need to reach for the moon/Mars for options. I have absolutely no faith that humanity is mature enough to acknowledge potential problems before it slaps us in the face.

    Look at the situation now unfolding in the Gulf. BP admits that didn’t have an adequate plan for a deep water oil spill, but went ahead anyway. Careless and irresponsible. We still have the Rush Limbaugh’s of the world cackling about global warming/climate change. We still have people in denial about evolution in our own human history.

    Then there’s warfare. We can’t even trust our own leaders to make sensible and rational decisions. Neocons are still pushing for war at every turn, as if calming the planet at the end of a gun will work indefinitely. We still have Americans at each other’s throats because of religious superiority or because of ethnic superiority. We still have people in our own country who still harbor suspicions that minorities with different color skin or sexual orientation are not fully human and should not have full equal rights. There’s ‘freedom for all’ for ya.

    Somehow the idea that we as a nation can come together to face our own extinction, be it from an asteroid hit, an advanced alien attack, or from our own violent stupidity is moot.

    We need to embrace possibilities for space exploration for our own good, or before the hawks of the world use the moon (or Mars) for a base for space weaponry or ‘star wars.’

  • Carney

    Despite my earlier crack about dating craters, Silber is right that the far side is ideal for astronomy. And no, robots won’t cut it. Right now no robot on Earth can walk into your house and change a light bulb.

    Still, Mars is by far the preferable destination, and should be the main focus of oun manned program. And on no accound should it be a vague, distant, maybe someday mission decades hence, after unnecessary lunar or other precursors. That is death to the program; political momentum peters out too fast. Do it within a decade, JFK-style.

  • Oldskool

    “Right now no robot on Earth can walk into your house and change a light bulb.”

    They’re way past light bulbs:

  • forgetn

    America will never again set foot on the moon, nor will it go to Mars, in a few years the ISS will be closed after more than $160 billion in expenditure and no real practical applications (few new things have been learned that were not already known). The reality of the American space dream is over. The Chinese (money) and the Russians (workhorse spacecraft) will be the one going to space, they have the resources and the will when America has… bills.

    Science was never the objective of the moon shoot, politics was the core objective. Proof in the fact that most of the rock the astronauts brought back to earth still remains unexamined (80%). America has lost its taste for science a long time ago, today it is religion and social battles that excites the nation. America is facing a shortage of trained engineers to replace its crumbling infrastructure system, space is a project for which America is neither interested or willing to pay.

    Obama ended the “charade” that was the Bush mission to the moon, a piece of political legerdemain to leave NASA alive but without a real mission — the moon in 2050! nearly half the Republicans in Congress don’t believe in evolution, if the initial premise of our existence is based on a religious text how can science (that after is what space is about) become a core topic of interest.

    The age of America the bold (although even when we were rich many opposed Kennedy’s plan) is over, healthcare, social security and defense of the nation are all our politicians care about today. The electoral cycle is so short today (24 months) that any multi-billion Moon/Mars project is doomed to fail in appropriation.

    Sorry about that!

  • anniemargret

    carney: Do it within a decade, JFK-style.

    Agree. But we all know the only reason JFK got the country mobilized is because Yuri Gugarin and Russia was going to get there first. It was political and our nation was not going to allow the Russians to get the upper hand in the ‘space race.’

    We need the same thing to mobilize us. I can understand the argument “forgetn” makes above, or others here who say we have too many problems here on earth to seek funding for manned space flights.

    But the issue should be couched in a political framework. That is the only thing that both Republicans and Democrats could compromise on. After 9/11, this country swelled in patriotism and cooperation. Never before had so many red-staters and blue-staters smile at each other. We had a common unity, if only it had been a tragic one.

    The idea that either Russia, China, or another nation could/would get ahead of us in manned flight should make Americans nervous – the nation that conquers space first, wins .

    On the other hand, as ‘forgetn’ and ‘oldskool’ pointed out (rightly), we have so much dissension on such simple issues that advanced science exploration be it on earth or Mars makes most Americans yawn.

    Obama failed in this instance. Bush43 failed as well. We need a leader with a robust plan for America to lead (or get out of the way) in scientific advancement, technological and energy advancement, and space exploration.

  • anniemargret

    Or we can just hope that Reagan speaking at the U.N. was correct when he said the only thing that would unite the world would be an alien attack!

  • Hop

    Carney: “Even if cans of rocket fuel were lying around on the Moon, free for anyone to come by and use (and they aren’t) and even if a fully functional and manned spaceport were there waiting for us to use it (and there isn’t), it STILL wouldn’t make sense to use the Moon as a “jumping off point” to anywhere else.”

    Ummm…. No one’s advocating stopping at the moon to leave for Mars.

    You are employing the Tucson to Omaha by way of Houston straw man:

    Just as you don’t have to drive to Houston to use Texas gas, you wouldn’t have to land on the moon to use lunar propellent at EML1 or LEO.

    Carney: “…that article is a complete farce.”

    Your straw man is a complete farce.

  • Carney

    Actually, Hop, quite a few people, including those in important positions and who for whatever reason are taken seriously in space and/or public policy, are advocating using the Moon as a “jumping off point” for Mars. President Bush himself did so, unfortunately.

    You think you’re making an important and relevant point that the “plan” you support involves a Mars flight using lunar-extracted propellant retrieved in LEO, EML1, etc., rather than touching down on the Moon. What you carefully or obtusely ignore is that multiple touchdowns by other prior missions are necessary to make that happen, completely erasing the distinction you seek to make.

    Furthermore, such touchdowns, and such activity overall, are UNNECESSARY. A heavy lift booster can lift a suitable payload into LEO and then use an upper stage to throw it on a Mars trajectory.

  • Hop

    You seem to be arguing with Bill White and myself. Cite Bush if you like, but your Tucson to Omaha by way of Houston straw man remains a straw man.

    Why lunar infrastructure?

    Mars Direct calls for disposable mega rockets:

    A non sustainable architecture. Best case: extremely expensive flags and foot prints. More likely the disposable mega rockets get canceled deader than Ares V before ever hauling humans past LEO.

    More propellent sources breaks delta V budgets into shorter hops. This makes reusable vehicles plausible. Lunar propellent depots could enable smaller, reusable vehicles that travel to deep space destinations. This could enable sustained development of NEOs, Phobos, Deimos as well as Mars.

    Furthermore, the moon is an interesting destination in it’s own right. The gradual accumulation of layers in the lunar poles could be to planetary science what the fossil record is to biology. A lot of interesting science there. More frequent launch windows and shorter trip times makes lunar development more doable.

    Why would we spend 200 billion to send men to Mars with disposable mega rockets? To look for Martian bacteria? Mars Direct is an unnecessary and horrible waste of taxpayer money.

  • Carney

    I’d be willing to spend $200 billion for a robust Mars program, but Mars Direct is costed at only $55 billion, already accounting for the inevitable cost overruns.

    Who cares if the mega rockets are “disposable”? Who cares about reusability?

    What MATTERS is making humanity a multi-planet species, not fetishizing irrelevancies. Rather than “flags and footprints” (in themselves valuable, BTW), Mars Direct will result in a chain of REUSABLE habitation modules on the surface. Once subsurface water is found, habs can be landed there to link up and form a base of permanent or long term residents.

    And your interest in Moon dirt rather than LIFE existing on other worlds is, shall we say, unusual.

    • Hop

      @ Carney

      “And your interest in Moon dirt rather than LIFE existing on other worlds is, shall we say, unusual.”

      When you show me the Martian life, I’ll take you more seriously.

      “By comparison the Moon is a poor, bleak world, with nearly no carbon or nitrogen, very little water, and a paucity of other crucial substances, many of which are only available through energy intensive techniques such as rock-melting, or sifting billions of parts of soil.”

      As already pointed out, this is flat out wrong. Chandrayaan 1′s mini SAR radar has detected what seem to be thick sheets of ice at the lunar poles. A fair amount of nitrogen was detected in the LCROSS ejecta. The evidence is that there’s abundant CHON at the lunar poles.

      Yet you willfully ignore the evidence and portray the moon to Mars as Greenland to the Americas. It’s more like England to the Americas. You would have had the Europeans forego settling nearby landmasses such as England, Sicily, or Ireland and devote all their efforts for settling America. To use your words, this is below cretinous.