Back to the moon? But why?


in Bombs and rockets, Economics, Geek stuff, Politics, Science

Apparently, Lockheed-Martin got the contract to serve as prime contractor for a return to the moon, and possibly further travel from there to Mars. Now, when I first heard the ‘back to the moon’ proposal, I assumed it was electoral fluff. How can an agency that decided to scrap such a useful piece of scientific equipment as the Hubble Space Telescope possibly be considering the scientifically pointless mission of putting human beings back on the moon?

I believe that humanity will eventually expand outwards into space. It is advisable due to the small but catastrophic risk of asteroid or comet impact, as well as generally in keeping with an agenda of exploration that I find personally inspiring. The first moon landings were an astonishing demonstration of human ingenuity and American technical and economic might. With present technology, manned spaceflight is a symbolic and political endeavour, not a scientific one. That said, returning to the moon serves no purpose, scientific or political. If we could do it in the 1960s, we can do it again now. Even if you accept the argument that a moon base is necessary for a manned mission to Mars, the enormous question remains of why we should take on such an expedition at this time, with this technology, and the present financial circumstances of the United States.

When it comes to space science, people are very expensive and delicate instruments. Robots might not always work (note all the failed Mars landers), but they don’t require all the food, air, space, and temperature and acceleration control that people do. The things we hope to learn about our solar system and the space beyond are almost certainly better investigated by robots, at this time. And the moon is hardly a profitable place to go looking for new scientific insights. A robot sent somewhere interesting – like Europa – would almost certainly advance science more than sending scores of people to that great airless ball that lights up our night sky and causes our tides.

This plan is especially absurd given the magnitude of public debt in the United States right now. The existing level of federal debt is more than $8.5 trillion, more than $28,000 per person, and the federal budget is sharply in deficit. If we could choose to send people to the moon instead of developing one of the two hugely expensive fighter jets now being rolled out (the F-22 and the Joint Strike Fighter, a $256 billion program), I would be all for it. At least, going back to the moon would do relatively little harm (wasted resources aside). Of course, no such trade-off is being offered. This would be spending over and above the sums already being expended on pricey little projects like the JSF, the DDX destroyer (about $4 billion per ship), and the war in Iraq (more than $300 billion, so far). The comparison to military hardware is a sensible one, since manned spaceflight is, to a large extent, just another massive subsidy to the military aerospace industry. Hopefully, the passing of the mid-term elections will put this white elephant to sleep again.

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{ 22 comments… read them below or add one }

. September 20, 2006 at 10:15 pm

A panel of scientists has strongly endorsed NASA’s plans to return to the moon, saying in a report Tuesday that lunar exploration will open the way toward broader studies of Earth and the solar system.


Milan October 31, 2006 at 6:54 pm

It looks like they are repairing Hubble. This makes me very glad.

Milan May 10, 2007 at 1:08 am
. April 3, 2008 at 1:09 pm
. November 29, 2008 at 12:43 pm

Obama Team Considers Cancellation of Ares, Orion

“US President-elect Barack Obama’s NASA transition team is asking US space agency officials to quantify how much money could be saved by canceling the Ares 1 rocket and scaling back the Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle next year. … The questionnaire, ‘NASA Presidential Transition Team Requests for Information,’ asks agency officials to provide the latest information on Ares 1, Orion and the planned Ares 5 heavy-lift cargo launcher, and to calculate the near-term close-out costs and longer-term savings associated with canceling those programs. The questionnaire also contemplates a scenario where Ares 1 would be canceled but development of the Ares 5 would continue. While the questionnaire, a copy of which was obtained by Space News, also asks NASA to provide a cost estimate for accelerating the first operational flight of Ares 1 and Orion from the current target date of March 2015 to as soon as 2013, NASA was not asked to study the cost implications of canceling any of its other programs, including the significantly overbudget 2009 Mars Science Laboratory or the James Webb Space Telescope.”

Milan February 24, 2009 at 11:22 pm

While NASA apparently didn’t see fit to put the OCO on a reliable booster, they have been spending money testing engines for a pointless moon mission.

Earth’s moon is probably the most boring place in the solar system, and yet we have sent manned expeditions there seven times (six of which touched down on the surface, one of which was Apollo 13).

Forget about moon jaunts and focus on what NASA does best: studying both distant worlds and out own planet, from the vantage point of space.

Tristan February 25, 2009 at 1:18 am

They could just fake it. That would be pretty cheap. And they could pocket the contracts.

Milan February 25, 2009 at 8:51 am

I don’t think they could. There are a lot of people out there who can track orbits visually and by radio.

There are also lots of people with big telescopes.

Finally, it doesn’t seem like any US government agency is too good at keeping secrets.

. May 7, 2009 at 9:18 pm

Obama orders review of NASA return to the moon

As agency presents its $18B budget, White House calls for closer look at space flight plans
By Sharon Gaudin

Plans for NASA to send humans back to the moon might be in jeopardy.

President Barack Obama’s administration today called for an independent review of NASA’s human space flight activities.

Looking at possible alternatives to programs already in the pipeline, the review is geared toward making sure the country’s human space flight program remains “safe, innovative and affordable” after the space shuttle is retired, NASA says.

Acting NASA Administrator Christopher Scolese said in a statement, “The thousands of workers who have given so much over the years to bring human spaceflight to where it is today deserve nothing less than a full assurance their commitment will be applied in the smartest and most practical ways.”

. July 16, 2009 at 5:24 pm

Sorry, Buzz Aldrin, we’re not sending people to Mars by 2029 to “homestead” or study “climate change”

The second man to walk on the moon has an odd op-ed in the Washington Post today, “Time to Boldly Go Once More.” Not surprisingly, he wants to go to Mars, but a key reason he offers — to study climate change — is very strange indeed.

Matt July 17, 2009 at 3:32 pm

…and yet we have sent manned expeditions there seven times (six of which touched down on the surface, one of which was Apollo 13).

If you count missions that didn’t touch down, (like Apollo 13), I think you will find there were 10 manned expeditions to the moon: Apollo 8 through 17.

I wanted to share a link about brand new photos the current Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter has taken of the original Apollo landing sites. The photos are the first views of the sites since the missions and are exciting to see. More exciting will be the higher quality versions NASA is planning when the orbiter reaches its final orbit. According to the article, they will be 3 times the resolution.

In reading wikipedia just now, there was an interesting point brought up. The photos returned from the Apollo missions of Earth itself has inspired environmentalism in many people. It’s hard to quantify such an impact, but it’s likely vast.

Milan July 17, 2009 at 3:39 pm

A lot of people do mention Earthrise alongside Silent Spring as works that helped kick off the environmental movement.

Milan July 17, 2009 at 3:41 pm

The JFK Presidential Library has created an interesting homage to the Apollo 11 mission.

Milan July 19, 2009 at 5:04 pm

Here is a very nice photo of the Earth, taken by Apollo 11.

Via Ken Rockwell

. July 19, 2009 at 6:01 pm

Why go back to the Moon?

Six flags, 12 sets of dusty footprints and 382 kg of rock; all at a cost (at 1960s prices) of some $20bn.

The Apollo Moon landings were a remarkable technical, scientific and political achievement and their 40th anniversary is undoubtedly a cause for celebration.

I’ve been privileged enough to interview seven of the men who walked on the Moon and I’m enjoying this Apollo nostalgia-fest as much as anyone.

One phrase though always sticks in my mind, and it came from the last man on the Moon, Gene Cernan. He asked: “When are we going back?”

Perhaps now, the more important question is: why are we going back?

. July 20, 2009 at 4:47 pm

NASA, We Have a Problem

The moon landing in 1969 was inspiring. But today, American scientists are better off fixing what ails Planet Earth.

By: Dayo Olopade | Posted: July 20, 2009 at 6:32 AM

Forty years ago this week, a man walked on the moon. The ultimate prize in the decade-long “space race,” the two-and-a-half-hour moonwalk by Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin remains a testament to American exceptionalism, technological prowess and nationalist fervor. And face it, it’s pretty thrilling to watch. In honor of meeting the scientific challenge that defined the 20th century, Aldrin recently called for a mission to Mars: It is “time to go boldly once more,” he declared. “Let the lunar surface be the ultimate global commons.”

Retired Major General Charles Bolden, recently confirmed as the first African-American head of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, is at the helm of this new mission. The former astronaut has taken four space flights with over 680 hours spent in Earth orbit, and—like so many of the racial “firsts” that Obama has casually brought to power—that, too, is cause for cheering. First lady Michelle Obama used Bolden as an example of success when speaking to graduating students at Washington’s Math and Science Tech Public Charter High School. “He grew up in the segregated South and became a fighter pilot in the Marines,” she said. “Each time he broke away from gravity’s hold, he shattered stereotypes.”

It is a lovely story—retold at the president’s meeting with Bolden and the crew of Apollo 11. However, in the midst of a financial crisis consistently reported as the worst “since the Great Depression,” it’s not obvious that America should do as Aldrin wants. NASA does a world of scientific good, but the human spaceflight program that is the most prominent and nostalgia-provoking is also the most wasteful and the least necessary. Given the host of other priorities facing America, it might be time for the U.S. to hang up its moon boots.

. March 8, 2010 at 8:11 pm

“The US and European space agencies have drawn up plans for a major space mission to the Jupiter system, to launch in 2020, a talking point at last week’s Lunar and Planetary Science Conference in Texas.

The Europa-Jupiter System Mission will focus on Jupiter’s icy satellites Europa and Ganymede, investigating their chemistry and geology.

Dr Robert Pappalardo from Nasa’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory has led a study to scope out the venture. He told BBC science reporter Paul Rincon why this mission could yield “spectacular results”.”

. March 8, 2010 at 8:13 pm

“The radiation is the principal challenge to the Europa spacecraft. We have to design a spacecraft that can operate in this very severe radiation environment.

The kinds of radiation-hardened parts for such a mission do exist. The real challenge is to educate the community who will be proposing to build instruments for this mission on how to construct instruments which will be able to operate in this radiation environment.

We’ve done it before – the Galileo spacecraft made many flybys of Europa and even of Io, which is even deeper in the radiation belts of Jupiter. But never before has a spacecraft spent so much time – as this spacecraft will – in the vicinity of Europa; something like a year we want the spacecraft to be able to function.

So, it’s a challenge, but it can be overcome and it’s going to return spectacular results, really opening our eyes to how this icy satellite works and, for that matter the mission as a whole, as to how the Jovian system works.”

Milan March 8, 2010 at 8:13 pm

Definitely not a mission well-suited to humans…

. April 30, 2011 at 12:09 pm

A still more glorious dawn awaits
Not a sunrise, but a galaxy rise
A morning filled with 400 billion suns
The rising of the milky way

. October 13, 2016 at 12:23 am

SPACE need not necessarily become a battlefield, but the possibility is not without precedent. Military strategists have long known the value of taking the high ground, and the remarkable kinetic energy that comes with orbital velocities is a gift to weapon designers. The space race was a way to pursue the cold war by other means; its rockets were the children of V2s and the cousins of ICBMs. And its heroes were warriors, representing their nations in a strange new form of single combat.

The early astronauts had no real technical or operational purpose; their presence, like their combat, was symbolic. But the symbolism was central to the whole enterprise. Well before Sputnik, science fiction had established space travel as one of the fundamental metaphors for future transcendence, a rising above and beyond the limits of the human which would be meaningless if humans were not involved. Superpower competition made the same demand. If space was a race it had to have winners, and those winners had to be people, singular people whose achievements, made possible by the work of hundreds of thousands, would inspire not just their fellow citizens but the whole world looking up at them.

. November 16, 2021 at 10:54 am

The OIG report also concluded the lunar program was too expensive. It will cost as much as $93 billion by fiscal year 2025, according to the report’s estimates, with a cost per launch of $4.1 billion for the first four missions.

The space agency, financed by US taxpayers, must “identify ways to reduce costs”, it said.

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