Sympathetic Stupid

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Fly Me To The Moon - Play It Again, Frank

NASA have mocked up some plans to get back into space, in the wake of the retirement (in somewhat worrying circumstances) of the shuttle fleet. This has been coming since last January when Bush promised 'to the moon by the end of the next decade'. Otherwise know as the Where's-My-Cold-War-Textbook plan.

New Scientist - NASA unveils vision for return to Moon
NY Times - NASA Planning Return to Moon Within 13 Years
CNN - NASA unveils moon program
USA Today - NASA to detail plans for trip to moon

So, OK, here's the deal. It's "Apollo on steriods". People are having a go because it's basically the same plan as came to fruition in 1969, 49 years before this one's planned to get there in 2018. Yeah, I'd like us to have colonies on Mars and Venus as well, but this is some of the hardest stuff anyone tries to do. It's not surprising we (the human race) are barely managing to get off the planet.

In fact, I think the Apollo program gave us a misleading view of the quality of the tech. There was so much effort pumped into getting up there that development was accelerated; but this is similar to bringing forward spending, in economics. Example: if big-screen TVs are on special so you buy one today instead of next month, that doesn't mean you'll still buy one next month; the same amount of spending's been shifted forward. I think it's the same with space travel research. A lot happened in the 60s but this combined with no inconsiderable amount of luck and sheer hard work to get success. There were plenty of gaps in the technology and the knowledge, and these are still being filled in. It was always going to take about this long for solid moon trips to begin to be made, but Neil Armstrong's step made us think we were more advanced than we actually were.

In favour of this argument are the stats of the new vehicle. It's a lot better than what we had then: a bigger craft that holds more astronauts, can stay on the moon longer, can land anywhere not just on the moon's equator. It'll be 10 times as safe as the shuttle (1 in 2000 crashes as opposed to 1 in 220). And it's budgeted, inflation-adjusted, at 55% of the cost of the Apollo Program. The technology is getting to a better point. And there's some other good aims here. A priority will be to learn to live 'off the land', to be able to make fuel and oxygen from lunar materials (helped by landing near possible ice at the moon's south pole). This aims at a semi-permanent moon presence, like the sadly-neglected International Space Station.

I reckon it's exciting. But there are arguments against. Many space junkies feel that NASA is inefficient and over-buereaucratic; these posts from Rand Simberg Apollo 2.0 and Mission Costs give a feel of this. It seems that it's possible that it could all be done orders of magnitude cheaper by private corporations. I'd love to believe that. Maybe NASA should be rearranged so that it simply provided funding and support for private enterprise. But maybe space flight is just hard and it just costs a lot (though these guys know more about that than me).

Of course, the other reason for continuing the US space program is because Russia and China can - it's national security, stupid. And the European Space Agency, while it hasn't got human spaceflight capabilities, is sending probes to Mars and Venus as we speak. NASA remains the public's space icon, but they might be dropping off the pace in the hidden public sector space race.

It'd be interesting if it turns out like when you're playing Risk 2210 (the board game). What can happen there is that you dominate the earth but fail to take notice of the moon, and someone else takes that over then starts to seriously challenge your dominance of the earth. All great empires have to end somewhere...