Tuesday, December 05, 2006
Escalator to Nowhere
Permanent Base at Moon's South Pole Envisioned by 2024
NASA unveiled plans yesterday to set up a small and ultimately self-sustaining settlement of astronauts at the south pole of the moon sometime around 2020 -- the first step in an ambitious plan to resume manned exploration of the solar system.
I'm sorry, but NASA is thinking too small. I believe we must retrofit WW2 battleships with Wave Motion Guns in order to retrieve the Cosmo-DNA from planet Iscandar and repel the Gamilon invaders. My plan is certain to stimulate technological innovation and create jobs. And it will help us save our environment--its express purpose is to rescue Earth from the Gamilon radiation that has rendered our surface uninhabitable, and which will kill the planet within 365 Earth days.
Hurry, Star Force!
I remember back about 1,000 years ago in the Clinton administration, when scientists explained that human space exploration was essentially pointless, too costly in human risk for no scientific reward; that modern robots were far better suited for conducting any research needed. But who listens to scientists? Pantywaists.
My overriding question about the moon base, Mars landing or any other human mission is why? What about a moon base raises it above the level of a multi-billion-dollar stunt? What research could be conducted there that can't occur much closer to home on the ISS? The original moon landings were motivated by the rivalries of the Cold War. I don't see the Islamofascist evildoers racing to claim the moon today.
It's not enough for a generation too young to remember the moon landings to want its own "Fuck Yeah!" moment. It's not enough to want to manufacture a "national purpose" or give Bush an up-with-space-people line for his State of the Union. The Times article fails to explain what vital interest or pressing need requires us to build this outpost. Are there vast diamond deposits up there? Otherwise it seems like a colossal waste of time and talent. If "private interests" want at those "valuable minerals", why should our tax dollars fund their bus ride?Boosters of manned space exploration and development go on and on and on (and on) about the totally awesome details of building Moon Base Alpha without ever actually, as far as I can tell, getting around to justifying the damn thing. All the enthusiasm in the world--or rather, beyond it--for MAN! IN! SPACE! doesn't get around the apparent uselessness of the whole enterprise (pun intended!). I can think of a few more pressing national interests that could create jobs and save the earth, such as a coordinated effort to confront the effects of global warming. But that's not exactly the stuff of which 8-year-olds' (of all ages) fantasies are made.
"And that was the only folly the people of Springfield ever embarked upon. Except for the popsicle stick skyscraper. And the 50-foot magnifying glass. And that escalator to nowhere."
Staging area for hurling stuff into the sun
What're you gonna say now?!?
Slightly more practically, a moon base is a first step in getting some people off of this planet. In the long run, Earth is pretty much doomed; even if we manage to avoid tossing nukes around and destroying the environment, we're going to get smacked by an asteroid eventually. A few eggs out of this basket is a pretty good idea. If we wait until all Earthly problems are solved we'll never start, so why not now? It's not that expensive compared to a pointless war in the middle east.
If I actually believed the program won't be canceled by the next president or starved of funds by the next congress, I might actually support it.
I promise not to ignore the many beneficial scientific spinoffs of the space program if you acknowledge the suspect political context for this new push into space. It's not happening in a vacuum (well, except literally) but as an initiative from the most profoundly anti-science administration in modern history--one that would love to see funding to the earth science arm of NASA redirected, and aerospace contractors' pockets lined--and I assume a huge push back toward humans in space would reorganize nearly all of NASA around those aims. The Post article I linked to really pimped the exploration science angle, which I think is best served by robots. A moon base might someday result in artificial brains and fill Wal-Mart 2067 with nanotech odor-eaters, but closer to here and now it will likely have ramifications, some negative, that should at least be weighed.
I would have far less problem with the plan if it were acknowledged as an artificial goal, meant to spur R&D for terrestrial use or improve international relations. It's the romance about man's supposed destiny among the stars that bugs me. If the point of putting men on the moon is medical advances here on earth, or stabilization of potentially dangerous regimes, those goals I can wholeheartedly get behind. But telling me that the moon base itself is the point, or serving as a staging area for a further joyride is the point--that's a harder sell. It's frustrating living in a world where Bush can burn a trillion dollars on a counter-productive war that everyone hates because he's the "decider", but that public investment in/scientific motivation for research requires a shared delusion. Beyond that, I question whether doing something again will provide the same motivation or benefits that we got from attempting to do something first.
Those who argue the "eggs in one basket" idea strike me as similar to those who talk about moving to Canada to escape the Bush regime. There must be more practical, shorter-term solutions to our imperilment of the planet. I'm not terribly concerned about humans surviving a supernova millions of years hence, and if a three-mile-wide asteroid smacks into Bayonne, I'm in no position to argue with the cosmos about whether man should survive as part of a rag-tag fleet searching for a new home, a la Battlestar Galactica. Terra-forming Mars would take so long, and be so difficult, that such plans verge on religious belief.
I just can't bring myself to drink the Tang on this.
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