What with the Prez limiting the funding of NASA to only include a mission to Mars within a decade, and the recent campaign promise by primary republican candidate Mitt Romney wanting to restore plans to settle on the Moon, a new attention is being given to the argument. Not that you asked, but here’s my thoughts.
Generally speaking, the liberals want to retain the money for space exploration for spending on social programs and all things good here on Earth while the conservatives generally want to explore space for technological advancement, social enlightenment, and simply because it’s the history of man to learn more about himself through discovery of all that is around him.
Here’s some common sense. If you measure specific government spending programs and their effectiveness to society, the space program has achieved more and likely a greatest success over any program ever devised. It has fundementally changed our lives forever in our quest to achieve the goal set by President Kennedy; to land on the Moon within ten years. It has benefited all strata of society.. the poor, the rich… the wealthy, the homeless. The paradox to this is that our space program to the Moon was founded not for the purest ideals of humans on a quest for knowledge but rather to beat the Soviets to the Moon and stay ahead of them technologically and militarily. By today’s reasoning that’s hardly… a good reason to spend billions. But back when Kennedy made that declaration the fear of the Communist horde being unleashed onto the world and the threat of atomic warefare was very real.
But.. we live in a different world now. The mission to land on the Moon has been accomplished. The Soviet Union, and communism, is no longer a threat (although one might argue that atomic war is still real… but not likely anytime soon). So why spend billons.. rather, trillions, to settle on the Moon and explore space when we have such a national debt that’s out of control?
Because, if anything, Race to Space v. 1.0 has shown us that we are pretty much likely not the only living things in the universe, that there are also natural threats to the existance of us humans here on Earth and from space, that understanding our past from the origins of the universe will make us better prepared to address an unknown future, and the development of technologies we will need to continue to explore and settle in space will always benefit all of mankind. From a business standpoint it’s a damned good investment and it’s far cheaper than the defense budget or Medicare.
Admittedly, the President has indicated that our new goal of a mission to Mars does in fact continue space exploration and that still remains a good thing. It just takes it a little more to an inter-planetary scale… with the idea of going to Mars being a more practical and welcoming environment to humans… which is true from the scientifc standpoint. I agree in that a role of government is to stimulate new exploration in the various sciences… to encourage private development of growing technologies and opportunites afforded when new frontiers of discovery are introduced. This is the ultimate job creator. I personally have little issue with turning over the shuttle program, and future Earth orbit opportunities (like space stations, orbiting “factories”, etc), to the private sector (providing the government regulates it properly). Already the private sector wants to build shuttles to fly us average folks into space and back. Someone will likely dream up other ways to take advantage of Earth-orbit opportunities to make money.. and that’s the way it should be. But I am not in favor of just skipping the idea for Moon settlement and heading for Mars a decade or two away.
Why should we continue with a Moon settlement idea? I am sure the NASA people can think of all reasons scientific but I tend to side with a measure of my own common sense reasoning. First off, the Moon is there.. near home… within three days travel (likely quicker with the newer spacecraft designs). Without an atmosphere, it makes for a great universal observatory. Humans can settle there permanantly, and yes, humans will not likely to be able to sustain themselves in the Moon’s hostile environment and lack of resources. Whoever lives there will need to be constantly re-supplied from Earth… but then, so does any other “space station”. In this case there’s gravity.. and thusly easier to get acclimated to. Also, there is likely some first-hand Moon geologic exploration that can be done that may teach us a few more things about the universe. The Moon can also act as an assembly point for other space exploration or even a base for the development or storage of hazardous materials that no one on Earth wants to have in their backyard. I guess I am saying, that the benefits to Moon settlement make the costs a good investment for all of humanity.
Let’s not ignore a Mars mission… but let’s not do that at the cost of skipping the Moon and all it has to offer.