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Tuesday, December 05, 2006


Escalator to Nowhere

NASA Plans Lunar Outpost
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."

One totally useful reason to build the moon base:

Staging area for hurling stuff into the sun

What're you gonna say now?!?
A lot of the pro-space community are aging baby boomers who remember the heady thrills of the Apollo program. For them, space is our destiny and no further justification is required.

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.
It's ridiculous hearing this kind of neo-luddite tripe from someone posting their opinions on the internet, itself a byproduct of space exploration technology.There would be no microprocessors, no internet, no blogger.com if not for mankind's "pointless" attempts to reach out to space. Not to mention the advances in medicine- Pacemakers. MRI. Artificial hearts. Kidney dialysis machines. Prosthetic limbs. Scatch resistant eyeglasses. All spun off from space exploration. Ever use a GPS unit? Check the weather forecasts from satellite radar? Use a cordless power tool? Maybe you think the only things to come from space exploration are freeze dried ice cream and memory foam pillows. The money spent in developing technology for space gives us ways of living more efficiently, using recyclable, non toxic, and biodegradable materials, miniaturizing existing devices, making them portable, easier to use, automating them, and making them accessible to those handicapped (by spacesuits or gravity in the case of the astronauts)- all ideals we need here and now on Earth. Even if space exploration never nets you your "diamond mine on the moon" it's already paid for itself millions of times over with life-altering, even life-saving benefits. And you're fooling yourself if you think these scientific advances would have come about without the impetus of having to constantly innovate to get men into space. Oh, and you think privatizing or militarizing space travel would help? You can bet all these advances would have been classified or made trade secret, if they had happened at all. Aside from the "eggs in one basket" argument, which is completely valid on its own, you'd have to have no imagination or foresight whatsoever not to see how the human race as a whole benefits from this kind of endeavor.
Zack, your first line of argument is kind of like people who complain that Micheal Moore has no right to talk about poor people because he no longer is one. Shall I send a telegram?

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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