Friday, January 29, 2010

Bang, Zoom!

"We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.
Many years ago the great British explorer George Mallory, who was to die on Mount Everest, was asked why did he want to climb it. He said, 'Because it is there.'

Well, space is there, and we're going to climb it, and the moon and the planets are there, and new hopes for knowledge and peace are there. And, therefore, as we set sail we ask God's blessing on the most hazardous and dangerous and greatest adventure on which man has ever embarked."

-- President John F. Kennedy, Houston, September 12, 1962
In one of the most famous speeches, Kennedy affirmed this nation's goal of leading the way in space exploration and scientific research. I was too young to remember the speech when it was made, but the space race, and in particular the moon landing of 1969 was a source of fascination to me. It was something that the whole nation could rally around. Best of all it was something positive and peaceful. Unlike a war or economic sanctions, it built up our nation and our economy without tearing down anyone else's.

In the wake of the Columbia shuttle disaster, President Bush announced a "return to the moon" with a less inspiring speech.
In the past 30 years, no human being has set foot on another world or ventured farther up into space than 386 miles, roughly the distance from Washington, D.C., to Boston, Massachusetts.America has not developed a new vehicle to advance human exploration in space in nearly a quarter century.
It is time for America to take the next steps.

Today I announce a new plan to explore space and extend a human presence across our solar system. We will begin the effort quickly, using existing programs and personnel.
Our third goal is to return to the moon by 2020, as the launching point for missions
Mankind is drawn to the heavens for the same reason we were once drawn into unknown lands and across the open sea. We choose to explore space because doing so improves our lives and lifts our national spirit.

So let us continue the journey.

May God bless.

-- President George W. Bush, January 14, 2004
America was, of course, less excited about returning to the moon than going there in the first place. It wasn't seen as "new' exploration. However, the words and intent to the speech were not to use the moon as the ultimate goal, but to use it as a stepping stone to exploring the rest of out solar system.

I believe that if we are to survive as a nation and as a species, we need to explore space. The Earth is rich in resources, but it is only a tiny speck compared to what is in our own solar system. Unlike mining or foresting, taking resources from space, and using them to enrich our lives does not require taking anyone's land, disrupting anyone's culture, or making alliances with corrupt governments. They are there for the use of anyone with the courage to go out and take them.

So although I was disappointed we weren't going to Mars or a near Earth asteroid, I was happy to go back to the moon if it was a stepping stone. And indeed it was. The International Space Station (ISS), for all the hype is a dead end. We have learned all that we're going to about how humans can live in zero gravity - namely, that they can't for long periods of time. The promises of new drugs and zero G experiments that would provide new materials has not panned out. If we're going to live in space, we need to do it some place where there's gravity, and that means a moon or planet (or a spaceship simulating gravity). The ISS is an experiment that taught us lots of things, but it is not cost effective to continue.

The shuttle is also not cost effective, and not as safe as we once thought. I thought Bush's decision to retire the shuttle and replace it with a new, more capable vehicle was well founded. If he had also been able to scrap the ISS I would have been even more happy.

Six years later, president Obama decides to scrap all our plans for going to the moon, for going to Mars, for going to asteroids, for developing space at all. He even scraps our development of manned space vehicles. Did he do this to save money? At least that could be justified due to the economic problems and debt we face as a nation. No, instead he wants to increase NASA's budget, but have it all go towards supporting the ISS.

I have not heard a more backwards, idiotic space policy ever. Take the one project that stands to increase our knowledge and give back more than you put into it monetarily, and scrap it in favor of supporting a dinosaur that has no public interest and no scientific value. He does call for privatization of space, which I think is a good thing in the long term, but it is far too early to stop a national space program. Private investors don't want to see men on Mars, they want to make money short term, and that means lifting satellites into low Earth orbit, and giving sub orbital rides to billionaires. Worse yet, the companies poised to get the lion's share of the "stimulus" to privatize space are all foreign owned. Instead of reaching for the planets we have sunk back to our own atmosphere, just 300 miles up, and instead of giving a much needed boost to our own economy and infrastructure, we're shipping the money off shore.

Mr. Obama may think 300 miles is space, and technically it is, but it's like wading up to your ankles at the beach and calling it "ocean exploration". Perhaps Mr. Obama should take a trip to the ISS. I understand it's as close to Washington DC as Boston, and former occupants all say that it gives you a unique perspective on space.


Post a Comment