Thursday 15 January 2004

Bush gets it Right

From Space Daily :
President George W. Bush on Wednesday unveiled plans for a US return to the moon as early as 2015, saying a lunar base would be a launch pad for manned missions to Mars and "across our solar system."

"We do not know where this journey will end, yet we know this, human beings are headed into the cosmos," he said at the headquarters of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).
The plan calls for completing US obligations to the International Space Station (ISS) by 2010, and retiring the agency shuttle fleet around that time, with the goal of replacing it with a new "Crew Exploration Vehicle" that could carry humans to the moon and beyond.

The new Crew Exploration Vehicle would be tested by 2008 and conduct its first manned mission no later than 2014, the White House said, while work on the ISS would focus on research into the effects on humans of space travel.

US astronauts could return to the moon as early as 2015 but at least by 2020, and setting up a base to sustain "an extended human presence," the president said.
I think 2008 is probably wayyyy too ambitious for getting a reliable system up and running, given the parlous state of the US manned space programme. But apart from that, I think he´s spot-on.

As I said in previous posts, robots do science better than people. But scientific research isn´t the only reason for space exploration, we need to colonise the solar system, not just observe it. In Signs and Portents, I played up the Lunar Base angle, and didn´t mention Mars at all. This is because I see a Lunar Base as being, if not absolutely neccessary, then a really useful first step along the way.

Consider: it will take several months to get to Mars. Then it will take a year before the return journey can start. This means we really should get our act together in setting up extended-stay missions in inhospitable environments first.
"With the experience and knowledge gained on the moon, we will then be ready to take the next steps of space exploration: Human missions to Mars and to worlds beyond," said Bush.

There's another issue too. In the short term, we need a permanent - though not neccessarily self-sustaining - lunar base. In the medium term, a self-sustaining base would be very desirable. One containing a reasonably diverse biosphere, with a lot of genetic variation. This is because there are far too many plausible accidents that can press the "Intelligent Life Reset" button on planet Earth, from runaway Greenhouse to runaway Iceworld, from super-duper Volcanoes to larger-than-average cometary impacts. Most of these would merely wipe out Civilisation, and that would be recoverable given a hundred thousand years. Most of the remainder would merely wipe out Humanity and most other animals larger than a matchbox, but that too is recoverable given a few hundred million years. But there are accidents that would wipe out all but a few lithophilic bacteria, and sterilise the place to a depth of several kilometres. That would set the place back billions of years, enough so that the odds of Intelligent life evolving again before the Sun starts becoming a "fixer-upper" are too long.

This may in fact be why SETI hasn't picked up anything. The Universe is a dangerous place for species confined to a single planet. By having 2, we greatly increase the odds of survival in the long term. We may cut the downtime due to an unfortunate accident from thousands to hundreds of years, from millions to thousands, or from billions to millions.

It can be argued that if we're talking about such long-term issues, what's the hurry? Whether we go boldly forth etc. now in 200X or in 900X doesn't matter much. But the problem with that, as we've seen after Apollo, is that tomorrow never comes. There's always something more important on the agenda, be it saving the starving millions or subsidising theatre. The money that was budgeted for Lunar exploration was instead diverted to "good works", Health, Education and Welfare. Now if it had made a significant difference to those areas, it would be hard not to argue that the money was well spent. But is the US now free of poverty, or even significantly less burdened by social security compared with 1970? Has the educational system improved so much that it was worth the lost opportunities? Is the US Health system so greatly improved that it's a model for the world to follow? I think not. Individuals may have benefitted, but then again, it may be that the additional injection of funds just generated more Pork for the barrel, and took some worthwhile projects with it. Any benefits appear to have been "lost in the noise" compared to the opportunities foregone.

But that's in the past. We must now look towards the future. Because that's what the Chinese are doing.

Heck, maybe I won't go to the Moon, but maybe Andrew will.

UPDATE : The Cumudgeon's view :
My last thought for the time being is that if we get bogged down in arguments over details and implementation, there will still be people going to the Moon in the fullness of time. But they will speak Chinese.
Also via the Cumudgeon, a link to the full text of Bush's speech.

Voyage to Arcturus points out a few more steps on the way to Mars. Maybe Phobos and Deimos first.

Rand Simberg at Transterrestrial Musings :
While I'm glad that the president has stated a national goal of finally getting humans beyond earth orbit, I'm disappointed that those humans are apparently to continue to be NASA employees, who the rest of us watch, voyeuristically, on television. NASA was not just given the lead--it was apparently given sole responsibility. There was no mention of private enterprise, or of any activities in space beyond "exploration" and "science." It was encouraging to hear a president talk about the utilization of extraterrestrial resources, but only in the context of how to get to the next milestone.
Good points.

Prof Hall has a post about some advantages to a Lunar Base that I wasn't aware of.

The Rocket Man has a neat roundup.

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