Why should we go to the Moon?
If you’ve followed Project Savior Reborn for any length of time you will know I’m a space geek, it’s rare that I go a week with out writing something about space or a month when I don’t have a link to Bad Astronomy in one of my posts.
I hang out at a lot of sites where stating the idea of going to the Moon is singing to the choir, the idea is so ingrained that we should go to the Moon is so obvious that there is no need discussing it.
Then a wonderful thing happened at Space.com someone broke in a said going to the Moon was a waste of time and it is mankind’s destiny to be confined to the planet Earth.
Naturally I launched a bunch of ad hominem attacks against him and called him a stupid idiot, even though I feel that people who use ad hominem attacks are gay. However I know that some bright people do feel the same way, they just don’t say it on message boards about space.
So I will point out some of the reason that humans should and even have to return to the Moon.
Technological and Engineering challenge: Tomorrow’s Aerospace Industries rely on the challenges we put today’s students and interns through today. Back in the 80s Ronald Reagan talked about an Asian Express Aircraft.
An Aircraft that could travel at hypersonic speeds from the US to Japan, cutting the transport time from the better part of a day to a few hours.
Now, over twenty years later, we are no closer to building a commercial hypersonic airplane than we were then. The reason: NASA hasn’t been building new rockets, just maintaining the old ones. Rocket configurations need to be tested in the upper atmosphere to see how their thrust adapts up there. Hypersonic jets need to have their thrust adapted to the conditions up there.
A commercial aircraft builder isn’t going to do the extensive testing needed, which because of the engineering challenges would need to have the students from a lot of universities working on it. This open structured research makes it possible to test a lot of variables quickly but means that the results from the tests are pretty much open to everyone. No commercial aircraft builder is going to put forth the billions of dollars needed to do the testing, knowing a rival aircraft builder could use their results to get a plane to the market faster.
NASA is in the reverse position. If they do the upper atmosphere testing and an aircraft maker makes a hypersonic craft they can buy the hypersonic craft to continue research. Plus if they open a new industry in the US it is easier for them to get a larger budget.
The big short-term benefit of going to the Moon is the opening up of new industries. When we first went to the Moon whole new products needed to be produced.
Computers needed to be sped up by several orders on magnitude, parts needed to be put together with unprecedented precision, leading to ISO9000 standards. Even tailoring needed to have a scientific approach in order to assure safety standards on the spacesuits.
In order to return to the Moon and stay there, we will need new industries as well.
Since at optimum every pound of material put into Low Earth Orbit needs to use 24 pounds of fuel to get it there (In reality this is much higher) the quest for lighter materials for space operations is a must.
Research is being done in to Buckypaper (Carbon Nanotubes in a polymer) that is as strong as steel but so light that you could cover an entire football field with it and it would weigh less than a gram.
Transparent Aluminum, something that has only existed in Star Trek and in the form of Emeralds, is now being produced.
Both of these industries are in there infant stages, and at the moment it is cost prohibitive to use these materials in cars or planes, but a robust space program would need these as every pound of steel replaced by these products saves at minimum 24 pounds of fuel, a lot more if it is used in something that is repeatedly sent into space.
With a market for these products, private industry has an incentive to do more research into bringing the costs down, making these products available for more uses, giving more incentive to research more until these products become commonplace.
This will give us more fuel-efficient cars and planes, and lead to new products that can only be dreamt about now. Just as when Aluminum was as expensive as silver, I doubt anyone dreamt of using it for a soda container.
Another industry that will receive a boost from a robust space program would be small scale recycling.
On the Moon (at first) anything brought from Earth would cost literally millions of dollars per pound. You don’t want to bring something all that way just to throw it out. Making a Lunar Outpost will require Extreme Recycling. Everything sent up there will need its entire lifecycle planed out.
After this extreme recycling style is made, few on Earth will take it as far as the Astronauts on the Moon, but some aspects will trickle into the market place, conserving resources here on Earth.
While the Space Race was going on, millions of American students were inspired to become scientist and engineers. As it became obvious that America was abandoning the great plans NASA had for space, the students in the 70’s and 80’s took down their model of Skylab, took Neil Armstrong’s picture off the wall. Stopped working out orbital mechanics of the planets and turned their energies towards developing the most awesome mullet that anyone had ever seen. (OK maybe that was just me.)
While girls would sleep with me just because of my awesome mullet, part of me will always wonder, if I had spent the energy that I put into developing my mullet and put it into designing a new spacecraft, would humans be colonizing the rest of the solar system by now? We will never know the answer to that, but if we can inspire a generation of youth to master the solar system, it might stop the 30% dropout rate among students.
Medium Term (The next 50 years)
Helium 3 has the potential to make fusion power a reality. He3 extremely rare here on Earth, but plentiful on the Moon. Fusion Power could not only free us from fossil fuels, but it would open up the rest of the solar system.
It is no secret that oil has peaked, it took us 125 years to burn through our first trillion barrels of oil, we will go through the next trillion in 25 years. At the current rate of growth in consumption we would need an addition 3 trillion barrels of oil to get through the next 50 years. No estimates, no matter how optimistic, assume the Earth has that much oil.
Not only do we need to conserve as much energy as we can and use renewable sources whenever possible but we will need a true replacement for fossil fuels, only fusion offers to be that replacement for the next millennia.
Fusion from He3 hasn’t been proven yet, but if we don’t have access to an abundant supply we can’t even do the necessary testing to see if it He3 fusion can give off more energy than it uses. The longer we wait to do the groundwork the longer it will be until we get results.
One argument against NASA going to the Moon is that with the success of Virgin Galactic and SpaceX, space should be left to private industries. This is a false dichotomy, as NASA operates a Lunar Colony it opens up opportunities for private space industry.
The ISS will need to be a stepping-stone for the initial lunar operations. It is too small to do this alone and NASA will need to use its rockets for the actual Lunar Colony. This gives private industries an opportunity to contract some of the launches to the ISS and beyond.
NASA will need to train its astronauts in low and zero gee, Virgin Galactic is in a perfect position to contract some of these training flights both in its version of the vomit comet and in SpaceShip Two. Having a full 7 minutes of weightlessness is the best training for long-term weightlessness.
NASA will also need to have more astronauts in Low Earth Orbit, If Bigelow Aerospace knows it will have a contract for hosting a few astronauts in its space hotel it will have incentive to build more.
As private industry steps up to fill NASA’s needs in Low Earth Orbit, NASA can contract that work out. Just like the Federal Government uses commercial airlines for flying even though it has a huge fleet of its own jets.
With a robust space program mining the Moon private industry can take over Low Earth Orbit operation until companies are ready to set up their own bases on the Moon.
The Earth is not going to be perfect for humans forever. A huge solar flare could set the atmosphere on fire, a large comet could send the ecosystem out of whack. In 5 billion years the Sun will turn into a Red Dwarf consuming our humble planet.
Humans will perish if we don’t go into space. By spreading out throughout the Solar System it will take more than one of these events to completely destroy humanity. Space is humanities destiny, if we stay only on Earth we shall die.