(Updated from its original posting on Sept. 30, 2007)
Today, I was standing in line at the store. There were a few people behind me, and one pair was talking. One of them started a sentence with, “If we can send a man to the Moon…”
Augh. Oh, how I hate hearing that phrase. I didn’t used to 20-30 years ago, but now it just grates. The fact of the matter is, we CAN’T send a man to the Moon. We simply don’t have the machines to do it at present. Wait– let me amend that. We can’t safely send a person to the Moon and have them return. (After all, we could, theoretically, strap a couple of rocket motors onto a Soyuz capsule at the International Space Station and aim the manned craft at our natural satellite. The landing wouldn’t be soft, but a landing there would be.)
I well remember a time when people did go to the Moon. There was an excitement in society about how we were living in a world where we were no longer completely Earthbound. Science classes in schools were filled with students who dreamt of one day using their skills to explore new frontiers. Math was relevant. There seemed to be true worth in education.
Not long after Niel Armstrong and Edwin Aldren walked on the Moon, Congress cut funding for NASA’s lunar exploration program – which would end at Apollo 17 instead of the planned Apollo 20. As has long been said in the aerospace industry: without the bucks, there’s no Buck Rogers.
Then the most pernicious aspect of government set in: instead of leading, the Congress chose to follow. With the conflict in Viet Nam lingering and social concerns often headlining the news, strapping a trio of men to a rocket to drive a golf cart on the Moon seemed to be an expensive way to spend money…especially when the public was (at best) bored by it all. So we stopped going to the Moon in December 1972 – just three and a half years after we started and were beginning to get good at it.
Where did the money go? Well, most of it went to fund the next space craft: the Space Shuttle. As first envisioned, the Space Shuttle could have been the “truck to space” with monthly flights that NASA originally specified. But Congress and the military had their own ideas, and instead of a utilitarian pick-up truck, we got a bloated monster truck. Because the holders of the purse strings had their own agendas (and NASA, needing the money, was too eager to comply), the Space Shuttle become this really big, hard-to-maintain and launch platform.
Then you got the robotics scientists who insisted that the bigger-bang for the buck you get with automated missions was the only way to go about exploring our solar neighborhood. With the spectacular successes of the Pioneer and Voyager probes, and now the Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity, it’s hard to argue against that philosophy. Robot missions do tend to deliver more science for the buck. Even so, I’ve never heard anyone say, “If we can send rovers to Mars, then why can’t we…?”
And that’s the trick, you see. Dollar for dollar (or euro for euro), robotic missions do pretty darned good science while risking little except some money. They can crash into a planet, never to be heard from again, and no one gets hurt (firings and skipped promotions aside). You can’t say that with manned missions. A too-cold piece of rubber can lead to the death of seven people. A small hole in a wing can graveyard seven more. And for what?
The wonder of humans living and working in space is, for now, the main reason for putting people at risk. In the long-term, it could be the wisest investment we could make as I wrote about here. It’s not really the science, nor is it the ability for on-site humans to improvise (though that’s a useful benefit). It’s the wonder. Exploration touches the poets and dreamers within us. It’s what get our children to WANT to learn science and math. It’s what reminds us that we are all one species on a blue marble, tiny in the great expanse of space. It tests us to demonstrate our resolve that no matter the challenges nature presents us, we can prevail. Mostly, it gives us hope — hope that there might be something more for us than simply existing.
NASA’s yearly budget sits in the neighborhood of $17 billion. As of this writing, the cost of the current conflict in Iraq, over 6 years, is over $625 billion… or about $104 billion dollars a year. So, at less than one sixth the yearly cost of the Iraq action, the benefit we derive from ALL of the NASA programs (manned, unmanned, research, etc.) is less important (apparently) than getting lots of people killed? Or, we can look at it this way: for that $104 billion, we could build at least fifty (yes, fifty) Space Shuttles; and if each and every one of them blew up with a full crew, that would be 350 people dead – or about 1/2 of the US dead per year in the war (if we count Iraqis, then that fraction gets way smaller). And yet we still complain about the high cost and risks of manned space flight. Amazing.
I’m all for robotic missions. I cringe every time I hear that some mission’s budget has been cut, or a mission canceled, because of funding priorities of manned space flight. Even so, I’m not one to say that manned space flight is irrelevant. In fact, I might go so far as to say that it’s the most important part of space exploration. Not because of science, or finding a new home for us, or whatever. While all laudable goals, the fact is that humankind needs to keep searching — to keep trying to find out what is over the next horizon. If we don’t, then all we are is exhibits in a zoo of our own making. We have in us all the heart of an explorer. If we can’t do it ourselves, then knowing that someone else is doing it still gives us meaning. We need manned spaceflight to preserve our humanity.
I’m looking forward to the day, hopefully in the not too distant future, when someone comments on how “if we can send people to the Moon…” I can smile and know exactly what they mean.
(I am not a rocket scientist, but back in the early 80s, I was. Though it was a long time ago, I hope I still have some idea of what I’m talking about in this area.)