The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews

Orion and Altair
The future of the Vision for Space Exploration may be pinned to advocates’ abilities to promote the long-term benefits of such missions. (credit: NASA)

Why the Moon?

To say there is uncertainty over NASA’s future is an understatement. None of the three remaining presidential candidates have solidly endorsed the return to the Moon. One is calling for delaying Constellation program to pay for an early childhood program. One wants to freeze funding of all agencies with the exception of Defense and Veterans Affairs for a year while assessing their futures. And one praises NASA with generalities and gives no details on the expected level of support. The support for NASA from these three is underwhelming at best.

Politicians are very nearsighted when it comes to thinking about programs that will pay off when they are out of office or after the next election. That is one of the reasons our country is facing such an amalgam of challenges. Our leaders behave like they’re trying to put band-aids on the hull of the Titanic to keep it from sinking. It looks like they’re doing something, but it has negligible effect.

Some people argue that if we only turned our attention to Mars for the next generation we would excite the public into supporting that. I don’t see that as a possibility.

A story that resonated with me that my 90-year-old father told me a few weeks ago is one that probably could be used by politicians to argue for some other shortsighted fix. When my father goes grocery shopping he goes to a store frequented by many other elderly people. In this new age of rapidly rising food and energy prices, he has noticed a change in behavior of other elderly shoppers. He quite often sees them pick up a product, look at the price, and put it back on the shelf. Politicians see the need for a tax rebate to put money in people’s pockets. I will cash my check, but I see it as a band-aid that is needed because of a myopic approach to our nation’s energy needs. Bickering in our government has meant that we have never had a good plan to meet our long-term energy needs. I see the same shortsighted approach being taken with our space program.

Some people argue that if we only turned our attention to Mars for the next generation we would excite the public into supporting that. I don’t see that as a possibility. In the Internet age the public has just too many choices for a Mars mission to attract the interest of the majority of the public. I look at how fast support for lunar missions fell off after Apollo 11. It quickly became, “been there, done that.” In an age with even more choices and shorter attention spans, why would it be any different for Mars? If, at best, we get one mission followed by the same drop off in interest, I don’t see any reason to spend the money now. As much as I would like to see a manned mission to Mars within my lifetime, I don’t think it should be the next step.

I see the Moon a little differently. I see a number of reasons for going to the Moon. I see the Moon as vital for the human race to become a true spacefaring species. I see the Moon as vital to our economic future. I see the Moon as vital for maintaining our nation’s technological leadership. I see the Moon as something vital for the long-term survival of the human race. I see Mars eventually as part of these needs.

When we started the space program as a race with the Soviet Union for ideological dominance of the planet, few people, if any, were convinced that we should do this to develop communications satellites, microprocessors, weather satellites, satellite television, and all of the other economic spinoffs. I don’t see exploration as the prime reason to return to the Moon, though I will be fascinated with the pictures and scientific return if we do.

To secure a solid future for space travel into orbit, to the Moon and beyond, there needs to be a sustainable economic rationale for it to ever go beyond the hit-and-miss approach we’ve been following ever since the cancellation of Apollo. There are good economic reasons, that few people question, for launching communications satellites and weather satellites. Transport of people into low Earth orbit needs to reach that same sound footing. Exploration and economic exploitation of the Moon needs to reach that same footing. Space needs to help our economy stay on a sound footing and help provide us with solutions, including delivering energy to Earth.

Hillary Clinton points out that there was an explosion of high-tech companies while her husband was president. She fails to point out that much of the groundwork for that explosion was done in the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s, and that some of the groundwork was done by NASA. Presidents are not solely responsible nor to blame for the economy while they are in office, just like they are not solely responsible for decades of shortsighted and sometimes criminally bad decisions on energy, foreign policy, levees around New Orleans, and so on. The same thing can be said about our space program. Kennedy started Apollo, and Johnson kept the funding going, but it was Nixon who had the conversation with the astronauts on the Moon. The same kind of sequence will happen if we return to the Moon.

The challenges we face are, in fact, a great opportunity for a vision to secure a prosperous and secure future for the country and the rest of the world.

The ISS is a very fragile program. The shuttle is retiring before much scientific research has been done, and the Russian Soyuz capsule is proving to be a scary weak link in access to the station. The Defense Department wanted two launchers in the EELV program because they were afraid of having a weak link if a problem arose in one. Commercial satellite operators have a choice of launchers minimizing the risk to the entire industry. Human spaceflight needs the same kind of robust reliability. Congress and the president have been warned about this gap and if this causes the loss of our investment in the ISS and possibly more lives, they are directly to blame.

The return to the Moon should be sold as an economic investment in our long-term future. The technology spinoffs will probably not be as great, but the long-term new industries that emerge that will help support the next generations will be significant. In the recent report on the potential of space-based solar power it says that it may eventually be cheaper to build the power satellites with materials from the Moon. The Moon may eventually supply us with clean power from its helium-3 reserves. It never will support either of these potential power sources if we don’t first establish a permanent beachhead.

Stephen Hawking has reiterated his opinion that we need to spread the human race out into space if it is to survive. I agree with him. Fixing what we are doing to the environment is no guarantee that the Earth can support our massive numbers for the long haul without interruption. The best hope for our survival is to hedge our bets with homes on multiple planets. The best hope that we don’t go through wild economic swings from sharp changes in the relationship between energy supply and demand is to test the new ideas that can diversify our supplies in an environmentally friendly way. I personally think that a significant investment to test the technical and economic feasibility of space-based solar power is wise.

I am sorely disappointed in the presidential candidates we have to choose from because the challenges we face are, in fact, a great opportunity for a vision to secure a prosperous and secure future for the country and the rest of the world. None of them are familiar with the processes that can generate long-term solutions for the underlying problems. I think that a return to the Moon is one of the solid steps, among many others, that can be done to give us a better future. I think that a return to the Moon, coupled with developing space-based solar power, could strengthen and reinforce both programs. If and when I reach the age of my father, I don’t want to be one of those elderly shoppers that has to put an expensive product back on the shelf because its price is rapidly rising due to decades of shortsighted decisions. I don’t want to see people doing that now. These are some of the reasons why I favor the plans to go back to the Moon.