Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Beyond Apollo

Yesterday evening, NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter went into orbit around the Moon, just four and a half days after launch. As LRO's orbit is adjusted and its instruments are switched on, its sister probe, LCROSS, is entering a wide Earth orbit; in October, the rocket stage to which it is attached will crash into the Moon's south pole, and LCROSS will pass through the debris cloud and check for signs of water vapour that might be lofted from ice preserved in permanent shadow before it, too, crashes.

The two probes were designed to be the first step in a programme that would culminate in a new generation of manned missions to the Moon. Given the current economic crisis and Obama's reported ambivalence towards lunar and interplanetary exploration, that programme is currently in some doubt, but in my mind there's no question that humans will return to the Moon as some point. Other people doubt this, however. In last week's Observer, Robin McKie wrote that:
The Apollo moon missions were to herald a new dawn of space exploration, of lunar bases, manned missions to Mars, and more. But in the decades since - and after the Shuttle disasters - America's appetite for interplanetary flight dwindled. The moon landings marked not the beginning, but the end, of our space dreams.
He makes some cogent points. The Apollo programme cost as much as a small war. It can be considered as nothing more than a Cold War stunt, having no real purpose but to beat the Soviets to the Moon. Afterwards NASA scaled back ambitions to establish a permanent moon base and send a manned mission to Mars, concentrating instead on work in low Earth orbit that relied on the space shuttle, with its dreadful safety record. And now the space shuttle has reached the end of its useful life, the American manned space programme 'hangs by a thread'.

It's a pretty damming view, but it's also a partial view. McKie quotes just two 'experts' on the matter. One, Gerard De Groot, is a historian with an infamously jaundiced view of the Apollo adventure; his claim that the Apollo programme now 'seems as strange as stuffing fraternity brothers into phone booths, swallowing goldfish or listening to the 1910 Fruitgum Company,' is no more than amusing hyperbole - forty years on, we're lacking a slew of books on phone-booth stuffing, or detailed analysis of the lyrics of 'Goody Goody Gumdrops.' The other, Professor Amitai Etzioni, is a sociologist best known for his work on communitarianism, with a sideline in criticising the space race; his claim that 'If you look at 100-year-old maps of the moon in old encyclopedias, you can see they are not that different from the maps we have made after Apollo' misses the point that we know less about the surface of the Moon than we do of Mars. The HiRise orbiter has mapped Mars with a resolution of 30 centimetres; the best resolution of the lunar surface obtainable by Earth-based telescopes is half a kilometre and by previous generations of lunar orbiters some twenty metres.

That's LRO's principal mission: to provide maps of the lunar surface with a resolution equivalent to the HiRise orbiter, and to search out places where future explorers can land safely. If LCROSS finds evidence of lunar ice frozen in shadows at the south pole, it will mean that any permanent base may be able to tap native supplies. Of course, lunar exploration won't be cheap. But the Apollo programme cost less than the Viet Nam war, that war was less costly, month by month, than the Iraq conflict, and the recent bail-out of US banks overshadows them all, costing more than the Lousianna Purchase, the New Deal, WW2, the Marshall plan, the Korean war, the Apollo moonshots, Viet Nam, the Savings&Loan crisis, and Iraq combined. Cost is relative; relatively, Apollo cost very little (LRO cost even less of course - about the same as the annual amount Brazilians spend on cosmetics). And even if the US is at present reluctant to commit funds to manned exploration of the Moon, it isn't the only player in space. On the same day that LRO entered lunar orbit, India announced plans to launch its first manned orbital flight, and gave itself a deadline of landing a man on the Moon by 2020. Some may considered manned space exploration a magnificent and transient folly; I'm on the side of the dreamers. And even if the science and historical significance of landing on the Moon fades into obscurity, the Apollo will have left us with one lasting legacy: the idea that our home planet is but a small, fragile and precious island of life in an immensity of space that dwarfs all human divisions.


Anonymous Simon said...

I think the fundamental problem is that space advocates are not doing a great job of communicating why space travel is important. On a lot of websites I keep running into the "existential risk" argument - that humanity is doomed if it doesn't leave earth. Technically true, but I just don't think you can scare people all the way to epsilon eridani. They need inspiring.

June 24, 2009 9:40 pm  
Anonymous Nathan said...

The lack of interest in Luna exploration and going even further is in my opinion down to a pure lack of imagination. It seems that the only way to connect with the masses these days is through celebrities and gossip. Perhaps if we set up a base filled with the likes of Katie Price and a few disgraced MPs and televised the results interest (and TV rights) may motivate state funding?

June 25, 2009 9:40 am  
Blogger ~M said...

Paul, I think you've summed up a lot of the frustrations of trying to explain to people why I support the idea of space mission. Partially, I think it comes down to the idea of going to the moon being one of the closest things science junkies have to the old moutaineer reply of "because its there." I can never quite articulate just WHY it excites me so much, but hopefully, we'll get more people like you on our side: people with a sense of wonder who can go a long way to communicating that feeling.

Having missed the first landing by four-years, I hold out hope I'll get to see the Indians get there, their mission succeed, and hopefuly outstrip the Apollo missions. Wouldn't that be something? And wouldn't that be something for the whole world to be proud of?

June 25, 2009 12:40 pm  
Anonymous Al R said...

I agree with Simon that you can't terrify people all the way to Epsilon Eridani. The "eggs in one basket" argument always seems to miss the point slightly, in that each incremental development in our spacefaring technology gives us another means of wiping ourselves out. Rocketry gave us ballistic missile technology, for instance, and the technology to intercept and deflect an asteroid could just as easily be used (in the wrong hands, of course) to steer a non-lethal one our way. I can't help but assume that the tools we'd need to open up the solar system and beyond would have equally destructive applications. Not that that's an argument against manned spaceflight - I'm all for it - but I think as M says, the only watertight reason for doing this as a species is because we can. It's the same with the space station - all appeals to the scientific usefulness of it seem to miss the point that merely building and living in a space station is challenge enough. I feel the same way about returning to the moon and going on to Mars - we should do these things, but we should not feel the need to justify them in terms of their scientific return. Science will undoubtedly come, but it will a bonus, not the spur.

Looking a little further ahead, I'm starting to think that the whole manned/unmanned debate will look a bit silly in a hundred years time, when even the dimmest space probes will be smart enough to get their own chat show slots when they return.

June 25, 2009 2:05 pm  
Blogger Paul McAuley said...

Simon (and Al) Not sure if I made it clear that I'm not in any way advocating the 'don't stop running until elipson Eridani' argument for space exploration. That we inhabit a small planet with a fragile ecosystem means that we should take care of it, rather than scooting off to despoil somewhere else. Although I can't help wondering if Branson has an ulterior motive in promoting private space travel - the first lunar colony may well be billionaires only.

Simon and Nathan - there's a definite need for smarter and better promotion (NASA TV a case in point - think of all a dedicated channel could do, but NASA TV doesn't). Involving Katie Price in any way a bit dodgy - in space, no one can see you preen...

M - 'Because it's there' - absolutely? And because going there will change us, in all kinds of ways (as well as people on Earth). And because we know now the planets and moons of the Solar System are so gloriously strange and varied we'd be dumb not go out there and stick our monkey hands in the various kinds of alien dirt. Not to mention various alien oceans.

Al - if the probes get smart enough, they may think, what the heck, why go back?

June 25, 2009 4:46 pm  

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