Jan. 29th, 2010

I've had my ups and downs with Barack Obama, but I am pleased at the decision to drop the 2020 moon landing project.

The United States is the only nation that has been to the surface of the moon, which we did over forty years ago now. As soon as it became clear that other nations were thinking about trying, George Bush decided to pledge to spend billions of dollars to ... get there first, despite the fact that we already had. We know better than anyone else that there's nothing there. There's no life, there are no moon diamonds, there is no ready sources of Helium-3. Maybe there is water, but you'd be pretty foolish to show up there thirsty with an empty cup instead of bringing your water from Earth. The only thing that's there is a metaphorical finish line, and we've already crossed it. (I wish the Chinese and Indian governments great luck in crossing it themselves, and hope that they don't have to spend as much in blood and treasure as we paid.)

More foolish yet is the notion that we were going to use some sort of moon base to stage our trip to Mars ten years down the road. This never made a lick of sense to me. I'd love to think that we could build something of value off-Earth, but I've never seen it. The ISS is in a constant state of FUBAR, and everything else in history has been constructed on Earth. If you somehow were to think that gravity is the enemy in aeronautical construction (and I can't imagine why you would in this case, which is making a craft that needs to survive Martian gravity), then why would you build it on the Moon when you have an infinite amount of zero-gravity real estate everywhere else in space?

Plus the dream that we're going to Mars in our lifetimes is something that we seriously have to wake up from. We're not talking about a three-day trip to the Moon. If you want a round trip to Mars, it's a year to get there, nearly a year to stay there while the orbits align, and then a year to come back. So you need to carry along three years of food and water for however large your crew is, and at least two years of protecting yourself from lethal solar radiation. So you need enough power to carry all that crew and food and water, plus enough tech to scrub oxygen that won't be replaced until you get home. Those are currently insurmountable problems. And God forbid you'd actually want to land on the Martian surface, because then you need your crew to repair your pod and somehow refuel it enough to allow it to relaunch and escape a real planet's gravity well and travel a year back to Earth. Can you imagine the Space Shuttle landing even on Earth on something other than a pre-fabricated runway and the crew single-handedly preparing it for the next launch while simultaneously worrying about their own survival in an inhospitable environment? No, you can't even imagine it; we've never seen anything like it before. Now take away the atmosphere and the moderate temperatures and the instantaneous communication and you've started to scratch the surface of life on Mars.

Not only is the technology insurmountable, but our will is too. The first trip to Mars will be a suicide mission. The brave men and women we send off to Mars will, if they're very very lucky, *die* on the surface of Mars. (I could not possibly illustrate this point more beautifully and tenderly than xkcd did today.) NASA doesn't have the courage to launch the Space Shuttle on a cloudy day. If we were to build a rocket in space, we wouldn't trust it enough to put the best lives America had to offer on it. I don't blame us for this, because I'm not sure that science and exploration is worth blood at the end of the day, but at least let's recognize that we'd never initiate the mission before we spend another fifteen years paying a hundred billion dollars for it.

I'm not opposed to technology and pushing the boundaries of discovery, but let's do it with our heads on straight. Build me a self-sufficient colony with a thousand people a hundred feet underwater that works without drama, and you'll have learned things about atmosphere and food and water and energy that will eventually make space colonies more achievable for our grandchildren, and that will furthermore probably have application for more ordinary terrestrial communities. In the meantime, let's devote the largest share of our research energies to the problems of today, climate change and alternative energy and affordable medicine, instead of the challenges of fifty years ago and a hundred years from now.


Matthew Daly

December 2012

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