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fly me to the moon...


Finally the long-rumored announcement from the Bush administration happened yesterday, and the New York Times has both an article and analysis (more coverage from CNN, the Washington Post 1, 2, 3, and At first I was excited, since as I've expressed before I wholeheartedly support spaceflight. True spacefaring abilities is be among the short list of things mankind should strive to achieve in this century. (Along with tending to some...err... tiny problems we still seem to have when taking care of our home planet).

The plan is (apparently) to phase out what's left of the Shuttle fleet (STS, or Space Transportation System). There are three Shuttles left: Discovery, Atlantis, and Endeavour. (an early model of the orbiter, the Enterprise, only performed tests flights). Additionally, NASA space science programs will be downsized, including cancellation of further servicing to the Hubble Space Telescope. The STS phase-out would be complete by 2010 (which would also be the "date of completion" of the International Space Station), and the new transportation vehicle would be ready by 2014.

And herein lies the first problem with this plan. Are we seriously saying that the US will stay out of space for four years? I find this very hard to believe, considering that the Chinese are certain to have made some progress by then on their own goal of landing on the moon. (And let's not forget Russia...).

After the new launch, a lunar base would be established, "at most" by 2020, and subsequently used as additional research, development and launch platform for launching a manned Mission to Mars.

This "schedule" seems to me slow, and with many of its targets are so far off that (as the NYTimes analysis makes clear), easy to derail. Not to mention that the announcement provided basically no new funding for the program ($1 billion, plus the money that would come from phasing out the STS fleet).

A big factor in this seems to be "safety". For example, the NY Times analysis mentions that the shuttles have been "prone to catastrophic failure". This statement appears to imply that other space vehicles have not been prone to catastrophic failure. Mmm. Let me see. The Shuttle has flown over a hundred missions (STS-107 was the last flight of the ill-fated Columbia) with exactly two catastrophic failures. In contrast, the Apollo program flew less than 15 manned missions (with a few more unmanned) and it had two massive failures, the first in Apollo 1 (which killed the crew during a test) and the second with Apollo 13, which barely made it back to earth. The number of Soviet failures at the same time is difficult to know with a high degree of confidence, but no one thinks that it was a walk in the park. The Soviet Union, after all, never managed to put a man on the moon, and Soviet technology, though constantly a bit behind the times, was never that bad.

This reminds me of one of Steve Buscemi's lines in Armageddon: "You know, Harry, we're sitting on 4 million pounds of fuel, one nuclear weapon, and a thing that has 270,000 moving parts built by the lowest bidder. Makes you feel good, doesn't it?"

Setting aside the nuclear weapon for the moment (Flying to Mars and beyond may well involve some sort of nuclear- or even antimatter-powered spacecraft), this is one of those "funny 'cause it's true" jokes.

What I'm saying is: I don't get it. Can't they get astronauts to fly? What's the problem? If they can't find anyone, sign me up! But of course, they can get astronauts to fly. They would, under whatever circumstances and whatever risks. But of course this whole obsession with safety is something that has been growing and growing in the Western world, with the US "leading the way" but with Europe particularly in the same boat. Apparently, people are just not supposed to die anymore.

And what about the technology? Does it really take more than 10 years to create a new moon crew transport vehicle? Of course not. Our science and technology has advanced by leaps and bounds since the 70s, particularly computer technology which is crucial to this whole endeavor. As the Washington Post notes:

Bush has outlined a tortoise-like pace, dictated by severe budget constraints, that allows a full decade just to develop a vehicle that would, once again, deliver people to the moon -- something Apollo engineers accomplished, starting from scratch, in about eight years.
The problem is not technology, it's political will, and funding. In fact, this new project is a mirror of something that was proposed ten years ago, which went nowhere, as one of the articles from the NYT describes:
In 1989, in a speech honoring the 20th anniversary of the initial lunar landing, the first President Bush proposed that the nation establish a base on the Moon and send an expedition to Mars to begin "the permanent settlement of space." He set the Mars goal for 2019 but the effort soon fizzled when the cost estimates hit $400 billion.
In today's western culture (but it's really happening all over the world) with our instant-satisfaction, one-click-shopping, celebrity-obsessed and 24-hour-of-irrelevant-news media, it's hard to think that popular support will keep steady over the course of the 15-25 years required for this project.

I must say, though, without cynicism, that I hope I'm wrong. I really, really hope that the US can stick with it. It's the one country that has the knowhow and the resources (and, at times, the spirit) necessary to pull it off. And for all the criticisms, it has maintained a continuing space program, to its credit. Does anyone think that the International Space Station would be anything but a blueprint by now if it wasn't for the time, money, and energy (however misdirected) that the US has spent on it?

And, by the way, why does the US have to do this by itself? The Chinese are moving forward, but if they keep at it there will be questions as to how much international aid they need, as this article from the economist notes. And, where's Japan, where's Russia? More importantly, where's the EU? There's been lots of talk about the potential world power the EU can become. But instead of talking about worthy goals, like using the European Space Agency for a daring multinational space exploration program, we keep discussing agricultural subsidies and whether one country has more votes than the other. It's not of course that those are not important issues, but there is zero attention, money, or "political capital" put forward for anything other than those things. I mean, Germany, France, the UK, and all the other great countries. Come on! Europe has to stop running scared from its past of internicine warfare and truly look forward to the future. The US can't be left alone holding the bag with this.

I suddenly think of part of a Sagan quote I posted sometime ago:

Spaceflight, therefore, is subversive. If they are fortunate enough to find themselves in Earth orbit, most people, after a little meditation, have similar thoughts. The nations that had insituted spaceflight had done so largely for nationalistic reasons; it was a small irony that almost everyone who entered space received a starting glimpse of a transnational perspective, of the Earth as one world.
We are not that far away. We can only hope that we, as a society, can for once look just a little beyond our noses and truly make it happen.

Categories: science
Posted by diego on January 15 2004 at 1:45 PM

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