Search This Blog

Monday, February 8, 2010

Asking for the Moon

President Obama's decision to scrap America's return to the Moon has been met with dismay. Our space program, at least the part that involves humans in space, has been drifting for a long time, wasting our energy and resources first with the Space Shuttle and now with the Space Station. And now the one goal it had seems to have disappeared as well. If you think about it, though, how well conceived was that goal?

In the sixties, before the decade was out, we sent a man to the Moon and returned him safely to Earth. But it appeared that the Constellation program would not have been able to meet its goal of returning to the Moon by 2020. The first President Bush had also proposed a daring but even more misconceived goal for the human exploration of space: a mission to Mars so expensive (and, really, pointless) that it died a merciful death in no time.

Fortunately Jerry Zubrin came along and fired our imagination with sensible and exciting schemes for going to the red planet and beyond. His ideas really set the stage for a true colonization of the solar system. At least for a serious dialogue about it. Now we need him and more like him to offer the country new space adventures worth undertaking. This job cannot be left to NASA. The record of the past few decades makes that clear.

The Obama administrators said that they are willing to listen to new ideas. But those new ideas cannot be absurdly expensive. And they must give us a true foothold in space. Whatever step we first take must lead to another. And to another. This present misfortune might be a chance for a new beginning, for a new Golden Age of human exploration of space.

My purpose in this blog is to investigate the justification of space exploration. Why it is the sensible thing to do. I have only given a preview so far. The argument will be long, and it will take many paths. I do hope, however, that it will help frame the more practical questions, not of whether but of how to explore space. Understanding why sometimes helps us see how.

In the next few postings I will lay out the objections against space exploration. And after that the task of justification will truly begin.

In the meantime let me throw out for your consideration a little musing: Do we really need a super-heavy lift vehicle to set up an outpost on the Moon? Perhaps, and this feels as if it were coming from the top of my head -- but in all probability it has been far more carefully thought out by others before -- we could have modular spacecraft assembled in space. Let us make some real use of the space station! Since the modules need not be extremely heavy, they can be lifted into orbit by the sorts of rockets already operated by many countries, and ultimately by the private companies that are venturing into the heavens. Let astronauts assemble one module, say, for propulsion and control. Another would be the command module. A third would be the lunar lander. And each of these might actually be assembled, in space, from smaller modules. They could all be much simpler than what was done for the Apollo program or envisioned for the Constellation, for, among other reasons, none of them will have to be subjected to the high temperatures of reentry into the Earth's atmosphere. A module to carry supplies, for example, could be quite flimsy by today's standards. We could build the basic combination of modules in low orbit and modify it as needed it. That would be our ferry between low Earth orbit and lunar orbit. Eventually we should have at least two, one around the Earth and the other around the Moon. And eventually we should have at least two lunar landers. One on the surface and one in lunar orbit. And the beauty of it is that all the components of such a system would be reusable.

Our lunar outpost should perhaps use some of Gerard O'Neill's ideas. Put lunar materials into orbit and use them for manufacturing, if not solar power satellites as he had envisioned (and actually the idea may still be a good one, for the new designs are far smaller than those he proposed) at least a variety of spacecraft to carry scientific instrumentation around the solar system. In this way human exploration would support the unmanned scientific exploration of the cosmos, instead of taking money and resources away from it, as the Shuttle and the Space Station have done.

Perhaps some readers will have far better ideas. In my next posting I will return to my main task, but I would nevertheless hope to hear from a new generation of Zubrins.

No comments: