Friday, July 17, 2009

The tragedy of the Moon

Charles Krauthammer mourns the abandonment of the moon by the US.

Michael Crichton once wrote that if you had told a physicist in 1899 that within a hundred years humankind would, among other wonders (nukes, commercial airlines), "travel to the moon, and then lose interest ... the physicist would almost certainly pronounce you mad." In 2000, I quoted these lines expressing Crichton's incredulity at America's abandonment of the moon. It is now 2009 and the moon recedes ever further.


No one's asking for a crash Manhattan Project. All we need is sufficient funding from the hundreds of billions being showered from Washington -- "stimulus" monies that, unlike Eisenhower's interstate highway system or Kennedy's Apollo program, will leave behind not a trace on our country or our consciousness -- to build Constellation and get us back to Earth orbit and the moon a half-century after the original landing.


But look up from your BlackBerry one night. That is the moon. On it are exactly 12 sets of human footprints -- untouched, unchanged, abandoned. For the first time in history, the moon is not just a mystery and a muse, but a nightly rebuke. A vigorous young president once summoned us to this new frontier, calling the voyage "the most hazardous and dangerous and greatest adventure on which man has ever embarked." We came, we saw, we retreated.

How could we?

Yes, I think that would be a good use for some of that "stimulus" money.


wtanksley said...

Disagree. Going to the moon then was a mistake; building a space industry would have been the right thing to do. The same is true now.

If we have a sustainable industry, we can go all we want. If we go all-out to go again, that's all we'll do, _again_.

Karl said...

To a large extent, I agree with you.

Years ago, I wrote a Rant Of The Month column titled A Heretic on the Moon. The heresy I offered was:

"I'm about to say something here that is heresy to the science fiction fandom community.

Maybe we don't belong on the moon.

More to the point, maybe we don't belong on the moon yet."

...Summing up with...

"When we put men on the moon, we bought several things. We bought a research program, to be sure. We also bought in to a race with the Soviet Union, on which we staked our national pride. Was it worth it? Not for the moonwalks, because we stopped doing the moonwalks, and haven't resumed to this day. For national pride, I must assume it was worth it, because we paid it. Was it worth it? Did the boost to national pride outlive our presence on the moon? I think we'd have had more to be proud of if we'd gotten to the moon as a result of private industry and in response to a real need to be there. If our presence on the moon had met a real need, we wouldn't be asking how we'd go about getting back there -- we'd still be there, because it would be cheaper than not being there."

The thing is, we have built a space industry, of sorts. We have enough satellites in orbit we may need a manned program just so we can put up traffic cops. Satellites are worth the money. You can tell because companies are more than happy to spend the money.

My main point is, sending people to the moon may well be a waste of money. Building the infrastructure to put a base on the moon, and on Mars, need not be. (A skyhook project might be a better use of resources, though.)

But if we're going to spend billions of dollars on "stimulating" the economy, why not funnel the stimulus into space and space-based projects?

Those have a chance of paying off in the long run.

wtanksley said...

Well put.

You may be right that a base on the moon -- a supported base -- should require a permanent infrastructure. And of course you're right that space is profitable; for the reasons you gave. My point is that a huge government push is what's unprofitable and (by past experience) unsustainable.

And that would be the problem with putting a base on the moon. You're correct that it would require the infrastructure, which is a good thing; but buying THAT is like buying a second house before you've paid off your first -- you'd better be REALLY sure you can afford both mortgages even if you lose your job. Abandoning a moon base would be worse than not having built it.

But if we're going to spend billions of dollars on "stimulating" the economy, why not funnel the stimulus into space and space-based projects?

Well, I admit that I'd like to have the stimulus localized to my industry, so that I would be one of the first people to spend newly "printed" money (before it appreciably inflates prices in the rest of the economy)... But I have to object otherwise. That "stimulus" is just too narrow. Not to mention that realistically, it would take too long to start REALLY spending.

As I (and I suspect you as well, but I wasn't reading you back then) said back when this was being debated, if you're truly in favor of a stimulus you've GOT to prioritize getting it out there NOW, and the _only_ way to do that is to reduce withholding, i.e. payroll tax cuts.

...but it's kind of hard for me to promote that, since I don't buy the whole idea that a stimulus is a good idea.