The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews

Orion illustration
The basis for returning to the Moon has to be built on more than just science. (credit: Lockheed Martin)

Moving beyond science

Donald A. Beattie, in a recent article, argued a good case for establishing a base on the Moon has not yet been presented. (See “Just how full of opportunity is the Moon?”, The Space Review, February 12, 2007) A “slam dunk” case has not been presented—the last such case presented to President Bush subsequently clanged off the back of the rim—but Mr. Beattie goes on to argue against a rushed effort to build such a base. Fair enough. He argues on scientific grounds, however, which misses much of the point of moving into space.

Like many scientists, Beattie seems to assume the only reason to go into space is to do science, and his arguments are based on that premise. Anything done by NASA in space should be both scientifically justifiable and cost effective, he argues. If doing science were the only point, his case might be sound enough, but many see scientific research as only one leg upon which the case fore space rests. Beattie, for instance, seems convinced that we know all we need to know about the Moon; all the big questions have been answered. Well, perhaps—even though the history of science is littered with serendipitous discoveries that utterly changed what we thought we knew. He argues the Moon has nothing of economic value. Well, perhaps—though having a gravity field of one-sixth Earth’s gravity nearby might offer some interesting scientific and manufacturing possibilities. The far side of the Moon might also be the ideal place to site huge radio telescopes. He also argues that none of the technologies used on the Moon will help us on Mars, principally because we won’t be on Mars for a very long time—even though current plans envision moving quickly to the Red Planet after establishing a lunar base.

There may not be a good way to sell going back to the Moon and on to Mars in a quick, neat, honest sound bite. That’s bad in today’s television-driven politics.

The case for a base on the Moon is not as black-and-white as some would like, but that’s because we can’t predict the future. We can look at history and note physical expansion has been linked to economic expansion, but we can’t guarantee that will happen this time. We can’t be sure loosing entrepreneurs and other creative types into virgin territory will produce more good than bad, but we know that 400 years ago the leading power on Earth was in what we now call the Old World. We can note that expanding into new frontiers of various sorts has brought new knowledge and new insights, some of which has enriched and profoundly changed the expanding society, but, who knows, that might not happen this time. We can argue that the inner solar system is a dangerous place—knowledge rooted in the Apollo program—and that having a robust space capability, including offshoots of human civilization beyond Earth, is the only way to ensure the survival of our species, yet we can’t say there’s any hurry on that front. We can observe, however, that we have the knowledge and capability to begin a task of generations now. We can also observe that though, for all we know, the Earth might not be struck by a mountain from the sky for thousands or millions of years, neither can we say such an event won’t affect our grandchildren; we can only say we have the knowledge and capability to work towards stopping such a catastrophe now.

Is that a better case for moving into space than NASA’s committee-generated list? It’s no more specific. Should American taxpayers pay for government programs that do not have specific endpoints established at the beginning? In fact, President Bush has always said that other nations and private industry would be invited into the effort as partners. If they are, that would reduce the burden on the American taxpayer—not that the program as planned would take more than a tiny fraction of the federal budget in any case.

There may not be a good way to sell going back to the Moon and on to Mars in a quick, neat, honest sound bite. That’s bad in today’s television-driven politics. However, by leading a public debate on the future of humans in space—in all its facets—heading into the 2008 election campaign, the space community could perform a real public service.