Wednesday, March 31, 2010

The False Dawn of Apollo

In a comment on the previous post, Hugh Knight quotes Buzz Aldrin:

History will remember the inhabitants of this century as the people who went from Kitty Hawk to the moon in 66 years, only to languish for the next 30 in low Earth orbit. At the core of the risk-free society is a self-indulgent failure of nerve.

Man's first visits to the moon were like his first visits to the South Pole: heroic efforts driven by national pride and prestige that pushed the limits of what was possible with contemporary technology. leaving little behind but flags and footprints. After Scott and his men left the South Pole, we would not return for 44 years.

When we came back it was with radically improved technology developed for other purposes: a DC-3 with JATO bottles instead of muscle powered sleds.

The slowed pace of manned spaceflight since Apollo isn't a failure of will, it's just an adjustment to an environment in which manned spaceflight no longer comes out of the lavish Showing the Damned Commies We're Awesome budget.

NASA's budget for 2010 is over $18 billion. Putting canned primate into space is expensive, and making it less expensive is expensive. We can be patient: the Solar System is not going away.


Hugh Knight said...

Hi Will,

I don’t think your Arctic analogy is a good one. There’s little for us at the Arctic as a people, so failing to exploit it after Scott isn’t really that much of a loss. Oh, yes, there’s lots of science to do there, and I am always in favor of that, but it doesn’t advance us as a people—it doesn’t help much to get us off of this rock to which we’re bound. Space, on the other hand, is critically important for our survival as a nation and as a people. We should never have slackened our efforts.

Yes, NASAs budget is large in absolute terms, but not so large as to get us out into space. And it’s far less massive than the social and environmental programs that should be scrapped in favor of productive spending, which is what space spending always has been. Social programs? Create jobs in aerospace, with more jobs trickling down from there—let healthy people work or starve. Environmental concerns? Move mining to the asteroid belt, just for one example.

The solar system isn’t going away, but we may be. Whomever owns the moon rules the world. We owned it… and gave it away; a self-evident failure of both nerve and vision. And even if we ignore the hazards implicit in allowing other nations to control the moon by avoiding it entirely, I see no evidence we’re really advancing toward what should be our *real* short-term goal: Mars. Zubrin has shown us that we could be there *now*, but, in spite of that, all we have done is run more robots about on it. Admittedly, their data is incredibly useful and valuable, but not as impressive as what a manned expedition could uncover.

We can start for Mars *now*. Is Zubrin’s approach the best possible way? Possibly not, but it has one redeeming virtue: it is within our capabilities. By heading towards the “best” approach we’re allowing perfection to be the enemy of “good enough.”

So yes, a failure of nerve, and of vision. Penny wise and pound foolish. Weak and ignorant. We must own the moon and we must put men on Mars.

Will McLean said...


Assume for the sake of argument you own the moon, in the sense of being the sole nation with a lunar outpost. And you want to stop Iran or North Korea from doing something you don't like. Stop or else, you say. What's your or else?

Also, I'm a pretty enthusiastic space geek, but Zubrin is the John Clements of rocket science. He has a history of lowball cost estimates, overoptimistic sketch designs and handwaving away difficult engineering problems.

Hugh Knight said...

Hi Will,

You drop rocks, a la "The Moon is a Harsh Mistress"—all the destructive power of nuclear weapons without the radioactive fallout. And maybe we wouldn't do that—it's a terrible thing to do, and we've shown that, as a nation, it's really hard for us to get worked up to doing that level of destruction because our people don't have much in the way of spines any longer. But, by owning the moon, we can at least prevent others from doing it to *us*.

And that doesn’t even count all the wonders of low-G manufacturing the moon would enable us to do. Besides, in a sense, the moon is halfway to everywhere else because it’s outside Earth’s gravity well.

As for Zubrin, I'm not enough of a scientist to evaluate his work. His book is plausible to someone with my level of scientific education, and apparently plausible to others with far more; I know this because I tried double-checking what he had to say, and there are some pretty highly qualified people who agree with him (at least in broad terms). At the very least, his idea of sending robot factories to Mars to produce the fuel the first explorers would need for the return trip is an excellent idea, and has been proven workable.

Still, you may be right about him—there are, as you know, others who think he's wrong, and I've seen some of that, too. The fact remains, however, that we're not doing *anything* to get there. So if his ideas are nonsense, then let's get off the stick and find others that aren't. We can't throw away the solar system and explore it with nothing but robots. We should be explorers, pioneers and settlers, not just voyeurs. The point isn’t about a specific process—once we find the will we’ll find the process—it’s about the need to *go*.