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CEV/LSAM illustration
The ESAS is just the first step on a bold new adventure. (credit: NASA/John Frassanito and Associates)

Just another Apollo? Part two

<< page 1: the new base

The $104 billion

$104 billion is the price tag for ESAS over the next 13 years. It sounds like a lot of money. It is, but consider everything that it is buying. In 13 years we will have developed a system that is technologically and scientifically far superior to Apollo, and it will be ready to support building a base right off the bat, rather than a few years down the road, as was the case under Apollo Applications. The ESAS is clearly evolvable to larger sizes; as the Block 1 CEV becomes the Block 2 and Block 3, so does the basic LSAM become a cargo LSAM and then a crew quarters LSAM and a power LSAM and so forth. By adding more SRBs or another stage to the heavy-lift launch vehicle, even larger payloads can be launched. The HLV will give us the lifting power needed to loft supplies and men to the Moon, to support space stations in Earth orbit, and eventually to launch the ships of a manned Mars expedition. So under the ESAS, $104 billion will get us a complete lunar exploration system of enormous capabilities, and the most important tool to get us to Mars: the rocket. And of course, we will still be able to go into LEO if necessary. All this will be developed at a price less than Apollo, and ESAS is spread over 13 years rather than eight. It’s a far better system for less money over a much longer time. For all it will enable us to do, the two new spacecraft and two new boosters of the ESAS are a bargain. And once again, we see that the ESAS is no Apollo. The bottom line: we get more for less.

Lamenting the fact that our spacecraft look like older ones—and drawing conclusions about the quality of the program based on the external resemblance to older spacecraft—ignores the fact that the look is a basic function of the purpose of the spacecraft.

Another point that is rarely understood by those attacking the ESAS is that except for a few budget increases which have for the most part already been appropriated, its funding will come from the existing shuttle and station budgets. It’s not as if this $104 billion will come out of nowhere; it’s just a question of redirecting it from the shuttle and ISS accounts. This is why many, including this author, have argued for an early shuttle retirement (see “Where do we go from here: Making the Vision for Space Exploration a reality”, The Space Review, September 19, 2005).

The ESAS looks a lot like Apollo. Some things are always going to look the same. For a very long time to come, anything that is designed to land on the lunar surface will have legs. No matter how advanced the materials or technology inside and outside it are, capsules are always going to be shaped like capsules. In the far future, this may change, but probably not anytime in the next few decades. Lamenting the fact that our spacecraft look like older ones—and drawing conclusions about the quality of the program based on the external resemblance to older spacecraft—ignores the fact that the look is a basic function of the purpose of the spacecraft. The LSAM and LM both have legs, a descent stage, and an ascent stage, just as your 2006 Mustang and a 1916 Model T Ford both have four wheels, a windshield, seats, and an engine. To dismiss the 2006 Mustang as a copy of the Model T would be ludicrous by anyone’s standards. Planes have pretty much always had wings, cockpits, and rudders, and even televisions today look a lot like the televisions of 40 years ago, sharing a screen, switches, and a power cord.

So what?

So why should we go at all? We’ve been there, done that. Sure, the science is good, maybe it’s even better than what you can do with a robot, but is it worth the cost? What is there than transcends the science? Why should we go to the Moon?

Many arguments can and have been made on this point. However, when all is said and done, it boils down to this: because it is there. But it’s more than that; the desire to explore naturally arises from an understanding of our place in the Universe and how truly small we are. Carl Sagan understood this. In his famous “Pale Blue Dot” speech, about a photograph taken by the Voyager spacecraft from the edge of the solar system that shows the Earth as only a tiny speck, he said:

“We succeeded in taking that picture [from deep space], and, if you look at it, you see a dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever lived, lived out their lives… [Everyone] in the history of our species, lived there on a mote of dust, suspended in a sunbeam.
The earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena… Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity—in all this vastness—there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves. It is up to us… To my mind, there is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world.”

We have to go outward from the Earth. Not to do so would be like never leaving your house in your whole life. On the scales of the cosmos, which can only be understood using various analogies often involving apples, oranges, basketballs, and football fields, the Earth really is a tiny speck of dust. There are probably billions of Earthlike planets in our galaxy—to ignore them is unthinkable.

Ultimately, though, the importance of exploring space and the Moon goes beyond just measuring the mechanical strength of lunar regolith and the sequence of events in lunar history. This is important scientific work that should be done on the Moon, but that is not why we need to go there. Another analogy from the character Q in Star Trek is perhaps the best way to see this. At the end of the final episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, the omnipotent Q, who has sent the star, Captain Picard, on a journey of self-discovery, tells him,

“We wanted to see if you had the ability to expand your mind and your horizons, and for one brief moment, you did… for that one fraction of a second, you were open to options you had never considered. That is the exploration that awaits you. Not mapping stars and studying nebulae, but charting the unknown possibilities… of existence.”

Picard, perplexed, asks, “Q, what is it you’re trying to tell me?” Q begins to whisper the answer in his ear, but stops and simply says, “You’ll find out.”

We can’t put off the exploration of space forever. We—our generation—has the chance to start it now. Going to the Moon is not “odd”, and shouldn’t be written off because of short-term expenses. It’s the beginning of the greatest adventure in human history, and it is one that will have no end.

In the same way, that, that unexpected knowledge that surely lurks out there somewhere, is the exploration that waits for us. The possibilities of hundreds of billions of stars, nebulae, comets, asteroids, binary stars, white dwarfs, neutron stars, black holes, giant molecular clouds, microquasars, and brown, red, and black dwarfs—and possibly millions or billions of independent advanced intelligent civilizations in our universe—are too staggering to ignore. Ultimately, we will learn not only about our universe, but also about ourselves and our place in it. We don’t know what’s truly out there, but, as Q says, “we’ll find out.” Each time we choose to explore further we will open up a vast new horizon of possibilities. After a first wave of solar system colonization, we will have not one civilization—that on Earth—but many different offshoots of civilization, some self-sustaining, some not, on places ranging from Venus to Mars to Neptune’s moon Triton to the millions of asteroids and icy bodies. Tens of thousands of independent human societies can develop. And then when we expand outward to the stars, we’ll have millions of new solar systems to explore and colonize.

Our exploration of these things is a long way away, but we have to start somewhere. That somewhere is the Moon. We can’t put off the exploration of space forever. We—our generation—has the chance to start it now. Going to the Moon is not “odd”, and shouldn’t be written off because of short-term expenses. It’s the beginning of the greatest adventure in human history, and it is one that will have no end. That we could consider it to be “odd” is sobering considering everything that the mission would bring with it, and should cause us to think for a moment about how we got here from the optimistic days of Apollo, when anything seemed possible. But now, if only for a moment, those days seem within reach again.

If we don’t go to the Moon, if we explore solely with robots, or don’t explore it at all, we will not start this adventure. There is no greater change that humanity could possibly undertake from being an inhabitant of one planet to a colonizer of solar systems. We can start it now. To fail to start this journey would be a disservice to the entire human race.

And without people, things would be a lot less fun.


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