Issue Date: February 5, 2007
NASA's Bad Idea
In this week's issue of C&EN, Associate Editor Susan Morrissey focuses on the mission President George W. Bush has set for NASA—returning humans to the moon by 2020 to establish a permanent base that would be a stepping stone for a manned mission to Mars (see page 23).
Morrissey is a fine reporter and she does an excellent job of laying out the Administration's rationale for the mission. Her story explores the pros and cons of this new direction for the U.S. space program and lays out some of NASA's ideas on establishing a moon base.
Unfortunately, what no amount of balanced reporting can disguise is that such a mission to the moon is an egregiously bad idea. As Morrissey's sources make clear, it will cost a staggering amount of money (an amount that NASA, so far, has not bothered to calculate), deprive NASA's legitimate scientific missions of funding, and accomplish exactly what the International Space Station has accomplished, which is nothing.
"Nobody is clear on what science the astronauts are going to do on the moon," Robert L. Park, a physics professor at the University of Maryland, told Morrissey. "To invent the project and then look for the science to justify it is not the way it should be done."
There is important science to be done in space. Observing our home planet, for example, is one such activity. Unfortunately, neglect of an aging fleet of Earth-orbiting satellites is leading to a significant degradation of our ability to measure changes in Earth's climate. Diverting NASA's attention and resources to establishing a moon base will only exacerbate this problem.
In introducing the idea of establishing a base on the moon, President Bush used the inspirational language of exploration and discovery. "The extended human presence on the moon will enable astronauts to develop new technologies and harness the moon's abundant resources to allow manned exploration of more challenging environments," the President said. "The experience and knowledge gained on the moon will serve as a foundation for human missions beyond the moon, beginning with Mars."
The idea that humans have to visit a place and leave footprints there for humanity to claim to have explored it is romantic rubbish that NASA's own robotic missions have thoroughly discredited. Over the past three decades, these missions have expanded human understanding of the solar system immeasurably. The Voyager, Galileo, and Cassini missions to the outer solar system have utterly transformed our view of Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune. The Opportunity and Spirit rovers on Mars have performed beyond their designers' wildest dreams and extended human eyes, hands, and brains to explore the surface of Mars at a level of detail that is unprecedented.
There is an enormous cost to designing and building spacecraft that can transport humans safely to the moon and beyond. Space will never be anything other than a brutally hostile environment. The surface of the moon is outer space with gravity. The surface of Mars is far harsher than Antarctica in the dead of the austral winter. Putting humans in these environments serves no useful purpose whatsoever other than satisfying an atavistic hubris that is no longer affordable.
Thanks for reading.
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