Issue Date: April 2, 2007
Debating A Moon Base
Having read Rudy Baum's editorial on NASA and the accompanying article by Susan Morrisey, I wish to counterargue in favor of manned space flight (C&EN, Feb. 5, pages 3 and 23). I do not dispute the claims as to the quality of science being conducted by either manned or robotic missions and most certainly agree that from this purely objective viewpoint, manned space flight is not necessary in almost all instances. I also will not dispute that there is only a certain pot of resources from which to draw, and any emphasis on manned over unmanned programs will have an impact.
That aside, there is a subset of individuals who believe that humanity will be significantly safer if we can establish independent, self-sustaining colonies off-Earth. While this may be considered the stuff of science fiction and the realm of the romantic, if one looks at current events on the planet, there is some justification to work toward this goal. With the ever-present, one might say increasing, threat of terrorism and the increasing proliferation of nuclear weapons, it might be just a matter of time before someone either accidentally or intentionally unleashes at least a minor nuclear event.
Global warming, assuming one believes it is real, poses potentially grave consequences down the road. Although remote for the immediate future, there is the probability of a cataclysmic collision of an object with Earth such as one prevailing theory suggests probably led to the extinction of dinosaurs. These examples are three credible risks to mankind's survival or at least our current level of civilization. Whether humanity may actively or passively destroy our planet's environment or whether we may play no role at all in the destruction of the ecosystem, as long as we remain Earth-bound, there is considerably more risk that the extinction of mankind might occur.
Thus, manned space exploration, while being considered a romantic notion that consumes vast amounts of resources and generates potentially inferior science while also placing individuals at risk, may offer an insurance policy for the future of the human race. One might agree with this conclusion but suggest that now is not the time to commit resources to such an enterprise.
If not now, then when? I would argue that population and resource pressures will likely increase with time. Witness the predictions that we will essentially run out of oil before this century is over. In fact, I would propose for discussion that perhaps we have a window of opportunity right now to pursue manned space flight, which—if we fail to take advantage of it—will close some years from now.
David W. Brown
I read your editorial on the very "bad idea" of setting up a base on the moon and how this budget priority kills money for other scientific programs. I think you're missing the bigger picture on the whole "base on the moon" idea and how it will actually be far better for science as a whole if it gets funded.
I agree that if you fund the moon base, you have to cut funding for unmanned missions to other planets, which would indeed be a loss. I have been amazed by the pictures of Saturn and Titan by Cassini and the Huygens probe and of the universe from Hubble and can't wait to see what the newest probes show us of Neptune and Pluto. However, the huge amount of money spent on setting up a moon base will go to scientific R&D. Why? Because brand-new materials that need to withstand the rigors of life in the harsh vacuum of space or on the surface of the moon will need to be developed. This means more money for materials science R&D and for chemical research will be provided.
Please remember that the missions to the moon in the 1960s created great advances in technology that we benefit from today, because some shortcoming of an existing material was discovered in space and therefore money was set aside to develop new materials. A base on the moon will create all types of challenging problems for scientists to work on. More important, more R&D funding would be provided to develop new understanding of materials that exist only on paper but may work in space.
The amount of money that NASA will have to pump into government research programs will be huge, and all of society will benefit—even if only indirectly. But then again, all R&D has indirect long-term benefits; we can't always have the cure for a disease or a new lightweight material immediately.
By setting up a moon base we may finally be able to set up low-gravity manufacturing facilities that have promise for everything from highly aligned crystals to new types of pharmaceutical crystal forms that have much better effects and greater efficiency in curing disease on Earth.
I recommend reading "The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress" by Robert A. Heinlein and the "Red Mars/Green Mars/Blue Mars" trilogy by Kim Stanley Robinson so you can see that for all of humanity's faults, going to the moon and exploring space not only serves our own needs of pride, but also is essential to us as a species. What makes us human is the need and drive to do more, to go to new places, and to adapt to them. Simply staying on Earth makes us nothing more than a biological construct of random chemical reactions that happened billions of years ago—rightfully doomed to extinction when the sun goes out eons from now.
Alexander B. Morgan
I emphatically agree with your editorial and appreciated the article. With an understandable limit on resources and under orders from the President, NASA and President Bush have chosen the moon and Mars over the well-being of Earth.
It is up to Congress to reorder NASA's priorities.
Victor J. Reilly
Baum sounds like Christopher Columbus' detractors at the Spanish Royal Court! Technical fields that NASA fostered in the sixties and seventies—faster, better, and smaller computers; better software for computers; rocket fuels; better and lighter insulation material; space suits; smaller communications devices; and dozens more—now produce hundreds of billions of dollars' worth of products each year.
I do not see why establishing a manned base on our moon would not have similar effects. Also, some of the projects needed for such a base—for example, growing plants in small spaces—would help move us toward missions to other planets and, eventually, to the stars.
Your attitude certainly did not get explorers to visit the Earth's poles, climb the highest mountains, follow rivers to their sources, or dive to explore the depths of the oceans. If the Wright brothers had your attitude, they would have given up on manned internal-combustion-powered airplanes before they started. After all, it was obvious that, besides being impossible, an airplane would cost many times what a bicycle cost. Thus, there would be no market for the machines!
About 10 years ago, my boss—who was a vice president of technical operations and in charge of R&D of a generic drug firm—told me, "Don't reinvent the wheel!" You see, inventing a new type of wheel (a drug assay, using all new technology and my own ideas) was too expensive. I was supposed to just take the wheel that existed and prove that it could work for our applications. No, I wasn't to invent spokes or an iron rim or rubber tires, or anything. I was supposed to take the 3-ton stone wheel and use it, as is, for our application. I said: "Yes, Sir!" Then I went back to my office and spent the next several hours listing all the items that came from reinventing the wheel. I decided that about 1,000 industries and over half a trillion dollars a year came from various versions of reinventing the wheel.
So, as to your editorial, I say "Yes, Sir!" But I hope you don't mind when every piece of real estate outside of this tiny planet is inhabited by humans who come from places that do believe in manned space flight.
Leif Eriksson discovered North America about 1000 A.D. Do you know why North America didn't become a possession of Denmark and Iceland? It was too much trouble; that is, it was too expensive to settle. So Columbus got 400 years' worth of credit. And England, France, and Spain got very wealthy for a couple of hundred years.
Finally, someone has had the courage to say President George W. Bush's trip to Mars is a bad idea. It is not just bad, it is idiotic! The President hasn't the slightest comprehension of the astronomical cost of such a trip, to say nothing of the horrendous technical and human difficulties involved. Since the President made his decision, real science at NASA centers has been shoved aside, and the morale of many scientists has suffered.
A few years down the road, people will get their backs up at the lack of progress and the torrent of money wasted, when hundreds of domestic problems around the U.S. are starving for funds. At this point, the Mars program likely will be aborted.
The President made a poor choice when he chose this as part of his legacy.
John E. Casey Jr.
League City, Texas
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