- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 6, 2004

In response to G. Lloyd Helm (“To the moon and onward,” Sunday, October 24), while his enthusiasm for manned exploration and settlement of the new frontier of space is commendable, he has a few facts wrong and a few opinions flawed.

(1) President Bush did not turn on his own Space Exploration Initiative and “hack away” at NASA and other agencies. He supported some cuts of projects that had little to do with manned exploration, and some cuts were made in Congress rather than at his initiative. But his vision survived the congressional budget process largely intact.

(2) Certainly we should return to the moon. Its “dark side,” with no atmosphere to distort the stars (which is what makes the stars “twinkle” from Earth) or subject their visibility to urban “light pollution,” and as the only spot in the solar system permanently shielded from Earth’s massive radio chatter, is the ideal location for an array of optical and radio telescopes. Since the moon turns so slowly on its axis (a lunar “day” is as long as two Earth weeks), there is much more time to resolve distant and faint objects. The moon is geologically stable, with no volcanic activity or earthquakes, and so will have almost no vibrations disrupting precise observation. And since an array can act as a lens as big as the array itself, we put lenses all over the far side and create a “lens” the size of the moon itself, producing images of stunning quality far exceeding any telescope in Earth orbit — we could resolve Earth-sized planets from 100 light years away. Astronomy has driven much of the rest of science so far in human history; we cannot yet fathom what we would learn after we get a view that is not like a smeared, filtered, washed-out, tiny lens.

(3) However, while the moon is good for astronomy, it is a poor, barren world, a bad prospect for large-scale colonization. With such low gravity, it cannot retain any atmosphere, and without one, there is no shielding at all against deadly solar flares. With a two-week day/night cycle, sufficient sunlight is unavailable for growing crops, and artificial light is impractical, too weak for farming. Water is so rare that if we found dry concrete, we would mine it for the water. The moon lacks vital substances for human agriculture and industry such as organics, hydrates, carbonates, sulfates, phosphates and salts.

(4) Perhaps the most pernicious myth about the moon, which both the president and Mr. Helm seem, sadly, to have swallowed, is that it is a good “jumping off point” to the rest of the heavens because of its lower gravity and we should therefore build bases and spaceports on it. But, creating and building such an infrastructure there would be so costly as to far exceed any fuel savings from taking off there.

Besides, as pointed out by aerospace engineer Robert Zubrin, author of “The Case for Mars” and “Entering Space” (and to whom I’m indebted for many of the facts and ideas in this letter), even if an infinite supply of tanks of rocket fuel, already extracted and manufactured, were waiting there for us, for free (and they aren’t), the cost of goingto pick it up, either to land and take off again, or to pick it up in orbit from another ship that had taken off, erases the savings. It’s like driving from Washington to Baltimore, but diverting to Chicago to take advantage of cheaper gas prices.

It makes much more sense to go to your destination directly. And is there a destination that makes sense for large-scale human exploration and settlement? Yes, it has stared us in the face ever since the Apollo program: Mars. In dramatic contrast to the moon, Mars has all the elements and substances, in abundance, necessary for life and industry, including, crucially, water. It has an atmosphere shielding the surface from solar flares and other radiation. By incredible luck, it has a 24-hour day/night cycle like Earth, and its soil is a viable medium for plant growth, so large, cheap, inflatable greenhouses are practical, which is crucially important. People need farms. Over the long run, Mars can be “terraformed,” or made to be more Earthlike, with a thicker atmosphere, a warmer climate, and even a shirt-sleeve environment. Mars has as much land as all Earth’s continents combined, and it’s all open and available. It is truly the next frontier waiting for humanity.

And we can get there right now with boring, current technology at reasonable cost. No need to wait for a distant exotic someday. If we focus on going there directly, without distractions and diversions such as orbital/lunar spaceports or futuristic propulsion, and if we “live off the land” by manufacturing water, oxygen and return fuel from abundant and cheap local resources using simple and reliable 19th-century-technology chemical reactions, we can afford a significant program of Martian exploration, with a new crew launched every two years, at about $50 billion over 10 years, which accounts for massive government cost overruns and is a fraction of the current NASA budget of $17 billion a year, which is itself less than 1 percent of federal spending. Truly a small price to pay to give humanity a second world.

LEO K. O’DRUDY III

Fairfax, Va.

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