Sunday, July 19, 2009

Moon Landing

I am Space Prof, so I should have a comment about the 40th anniversary of the first human moon landing. My comment is that we should not go back.

There is no point to simply returning to the moon just to do it again. The only reason that I can see might be worthwhile is to establish a permanent base there, to prove that we can live somewhere besides the Earth. Even this isn’t that big of a step forward, because we already have shown this with space stations. These are not permanent dwellings on another solid surface celestial body, though, which would be a notable accomplishment. However, just getting there is going to be expensive. It will cost many billions of dollars just to rebuild the Saturn V launch capability again, not to mention the cost of shipping building materials to the moon for the astronauts to assemble and then use. This will not be a cheap endeavor.

So, I think that we should go straight to Mars. We would still have to rebuild a launch capability for getting people safely out of Earth orbit, but I think that humanity would be better served with a trip to an actual planet rather than the lump of rock orbiting the planet we are already on. This would be truly new and would represent a significant advancement.

People will probably die on the commute. We can’t get to Mars without months of travel time each way. Plus, Mars doesn’t have the strong magnetic field shielding it like Earth does. Astronauts in a spacecraft or on the surface will be subjected to much stronger doses of energetic particles than astronauts in low-Earth orbit, or even on a few-day trip to the moon and back. They will be exposed to some serious cancer-causing radiation, and they will get sick. Some might die. It will not be a pretty site. But we will have done it. We will have sent people to Mars and brought them back. We will have shown that people can go beyond our planet and off to another.

Why? Just to do it, is the main reason. The far-off utilitarian reason is because we might someday need another planet on which to live. Another motherhood and apple pie reason is to spur the imagination of humanity and inspire the next generation of explorers. These don’t really justify the cost of human spaceflight, especially the staggering cost of spaceflight to another planet. But I still think that we should go.

Many in my field will disagree with the above paragraphs, arguing instead to cancel all human spaceflight and just send robotic space probes to these places. The Voyager satellites are at the edge of the solar system right now. They argue that human spaceflight saps away resources from robotic exploration and that the two are in competition. Yes, to some degree, they are. I think, though, that they are tightly linked (certainly politically, and often budgetarily) and that such criticisms are self-defeating. If human spaceflight disappeared, then I think robotic spaceflight would greatly suffer. The civilian robotic spaceflight program would dwindle, and all that would be left is the military spaceflight needs. If that happened, then our view of outer space would change drastically, and probably not for the better.


  1. I'm not sure we should send people to Mars if we can't do it safely. By "do it safely", I don't mean "eliminate all risks". That's impossible. But I mean "like driving a Pinto" level of safety. We should not send astronauts to Mars if we don't know how to adequately shield them from radiation.

    To say it another way, we should eliminate the risks from known threats.

    Interesting discussion!

  2. Man. My heart says yes, but my wrecked economy says no.

    But, my heart says yes.