Wednesday, July 27, 2005

I see that Congress has voted 383-15 to support the president’s plan for manned missions to the moon and Mars.

“Congress endorses the president’s vision for space exploration,” said Rep. Sherwood Boehlert, New York Republican. “The United States will work to return to the moon by 2020, and then will move on to other destinations.”

I seriously doubt that the United States will do any such thing.

There is no reason to go to either the moon or Mars. The cost would be very high, and few Americans seem interested. Further the infrastructure doesn’t look good.

In the first place, the space shuttle is aging. It first flew in 1981. The technology is from the 1970s.

Despite many years of talk, no follow-on to the shuttle exists or is anywhere near existing. Remember that the great achievements of the heroic age of American technology — Saturn V, Apollo, and so on — were the product of a massive national effort with virtually unlimited funding. Today there is no such surge. Nor is there great public enthusiasm about manned missions to space.

Look what is happening with the International Space Station. Having no obvious purpose, it limps along, more an example of the immortality of federal programs than a practical enterprise.

Going to the moon, much less Mars, is an enormous undertaking. Sure, it could be done.

But the moon in 2020? Extremely demanding and expensive projects, lacking real support or purpose, tend to be underfunded and then to have their budgets cut year after year because other things get priority. Consider the F-22 fighter plane, under development for about 25 years. Time and again the program has been stretched out, its money reduced because, with the collapse of the Soviet Union, it never seems immediately necessary. Going to the moon isn’t immediately necessary either. The danger is that any program will just quietly wither.

Why go to the moon at all? The first time, 36 years ago, it was a parlor trick to beat the Russians and to prove we could do it. It was slick, an astonishing feat of crash-project engineering. Today any lunar research we want to do can better be done by unmanned vehicles. Why go? There is talk of establishing a manned lunar base. For what? To prove we can do it? We already know we can do it.

Bluntly, the idea of a manned expedition to Mars is nuttier than a fruitcake. I don’t doubt that it could be done. With enough money and time we could build a Cadillac of a spacecraft in orbit and send it off. But there is zero chance that Congress will appropriate that kind of money.

The president has said, “Establishing an extended human presence on the moon could vastly reduce the cost of further space exploration, making possible ever more ambitious missions. Lifting heavy spacecraft and fuel out of the Earth’s gravity is expensive. Spacecraft assembled and provisioned on the moon could escape its far lower gravity using far less energy and thus far less cost.”

But to assemble something on the moon, you have to take the parts to the moon first, lifting them out of the Earth’s gravity. If you think you are going to mine the moon for materials, you have to take the mining equipment there. It wouldn’t be cheaper at all.

The danger is that the unmanned programs, which work very well indeed, will be drained of money for manned missions that aren’t going to happen.

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