We're giving up the moon.
That's the elephant in the living room I mostly ignored in a recent podcast (available at http://www.newvoices.info/audio/mm/ed144.wma) regarding President Obama's speech of April 15, in which he sketched the future of American space travel in broad strokes.
I like Obama, but I don't like this idea.
It would be one thing if Obama were postponing a return to the moon in order to save money. But that's not his reasoning. He made it a point to inform anxious NASA workers that he plans to increase NASA spending by $6 billion over the next five years.
It's astounding that Obama intends to pull the plug so nonchalantly on President George W. Bush's plans to return us to the moon by about 2020. I'm no Bush fan, far from it, but his plans for space travel were visionary. They were based on designing a program reminiscent of Apollo, something I'd advocated in several columns starting a couple of decades ago. After all, Apollo gave us prototypes for damn near all the tools a spacefaring nation needs to explore the entire solar system. A heavy launch vehicle, a lunar module, lunar car, rocket stages that were converted into a space station, in the old Skylab program. Such spacecraft could've been used nearly anywhere in the solar system, given modifications. Instead, we traded all that away some 40 years ago in favor of the space shuttle, which, let's face it, is a turkey. We spent hundreds of billions the past 40 years, plus more than a dozen astronauts' lives, and we never got past low earth orbit.
Bush's program would have remedied that, with heavy launch rockets, new moon ships, and a long range plan to go to Mars and beyond. In scuttling the notion of returning us to the moon, Obama uttered only 16 words of explanation: "We've been there before. Buzz has been there. There's a lot more of space to explore." Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong are split on this. Aldrin advocates for Mars, but I'm with Armstrong. We should return to the moon, and use what we find and learn there to get to Mars.
Obama said he'd launch astronauts to visit asteroids and then set our sites on Mars, predicting an orbit of the red planet by the mid 2030s. But Obama's remarks don't cohere. He owes us his reasoning. Been there, done that…. just isn't enough given all the spending Obama's planning, because there are lots of good reasons intelligent folks have articulated over the years for establishing outposts on the moon.
As I and more imposing minds—Arthur C. Clarke, Robert Heinlein, Carl Sagan and Stephen Hawking among them--have argued….
First, the moon is a natural space station. True, it's about 100 times farther away than space shuttles have flown on their many make-work missions. But, at about 250,000 miles distant, the moon is 200 times closer to us than Mars, on average, which is some 50 million miles away, depending on the year. It took Apollo astronauts about three days to reach the moon from Earth orbit. It would take many months for astronauts to reach Mars. So, getting to the moon is relatively easy. Launching and servicing deep space missions from there would save lofting lots of materials from Earth's deep gravity well and through our dense atmosphere.
Second, NASA recently discovered many cubic meters of water in the form of ice, on the moon, something that should simplify efforts to build a future base or colony there, make rocket fuel and much else. As for polluting the moon, there's no life there to pollute. No free-flowing water, no air.
Third, the moon is the size of North and South America combined. It contains many materials that could one day be used to build space vehicles at a savings of trillions. What else it holds we don't know.
Fourth, it could help make us energy independent. That's because the moon is covered in a substance called Helium 3, which, it turns out, could be a perfect sort of fuel for future fusion reactors—the only kind of reactors I'd ever support, because they produce no radioactive byproducts to speak of. True, fusion technology has a long ways to go before it becomes practical, but why put such a natural fuel out of reach?
Fifth, returning us to the moon would render us competitive with China, the European Union, Japan and others who plan to go there.
Sixth, it's in keeping with an American tradition to explore the moon. We planted a flag there more than 40 years ago. It's become part of our history.
Seventh, going back could energize privately funded efforts to encourage the human race's expansion into space. Hawking and many others have noted that remaining on Earth forever is a death sentence for the human race. Sooner or later a meteor will strike, or nukes will fire off, the sun will evolve, and humanity perish.
At this point, arguments spin toward deep philosophical outposts, and Obama owes us a mental trip there. Had he based his decision not to return us to Luna on deep philosophical thinking, I'd have been impressed.
He might've made the case that he's restoring the old June croon spoon moon to the realm of folklore, magic and literature, and that the human race can't risk despoiling such a wondrous thing as the moon, as we've despoiled so much of the earth. I might not agree, but it's an argument I could respect.
Or he might've suggested technology will leap-frog any benefits a way-station on the moon might provide. Maybe technology will render a moon base irrelevant. I'm willing to be convinced of this as well.
He could've made the case that we're better off leaving the moon to private enterprise. Obama did state that "in order to reach the space station, we will work with a growing array of private companies competing to make getting to space easier and more affordable." If he meant to imply that we'd also rely on private enterprise to return us to the moon, a quarter-million miles more distant than the space station, he should've said so. Demonstrably, the moon's a mighty big subject, and a relatively big piece of the local cosmos. It's too big to toss off with a shrug and been there, done that....