Monday, February 22, 2010

Why We Must Return To The Moon: In Defence of Constellation – Part 1

President of the United States, Barack Obama, has filed his planned federal budget for the United States in 2011. In it, he has boosted NASA’s budget; however, in doing so he has made no allotment for the Constellation mission.

This was met with both joy and disappointment – on the one hand, more money is always good, but on the other, some feel that Obama is essentially throwing away their chance to forge a name in space. And, to state my bias early on, I’m inclined to agree with them.

In this article, I’ll be examining Constellation, the controversy around it, and why I believe Obama’s decision is the wrong one for spaceflight in the United States.

What is Constellation?

Constellation is NASA’s plan for human-based space exploration for the near future. It consists of two kinds of rocket boosters – the Ares I, for human missions, and the Ares V, for cargo and heavy lifting – and three craft – Orion, for crew, Altair, for lunar landing and transport, and the Earth Departure Stage, which acts as both part of the rocket and as the lunar module.

Right now, Constellation’s primary focus is landing a man on the moon again, but future missions include landing on an asteroid and landing on Mars.

Why the moon? Haven’t we already been there?

Yes, but it is important we go again, if only for three reasons:

  • Sharpening the blade. If we are to go to other planets, then the Moon is our best shot at practicing and perfecting our techniques and technology. If things go wrong on the way to the Moon, it’s a lot easier than if they go wrong on the way to Mars or Jupiter.
  • Inspiration and innovation. Only five times did people look up at the Moon while people walked and talked upon its surface; those five times inspired many people to become astronauts and astronomers and physicists and engineers and computer technicians and programmers, in the hope that they too could be a part of it. Those five times prompted a spark of innovation, so that we can do things in space that one could not normally do; many of these technologies greatly benefited people back on Earth.
    We need to go to the Moon, not just because of what we’ll do once we get there, but what it will do for all of us.
  • Inertia. In my opinion, it was a mistake to cancel the Apollo programme. We should have never stopped going there, simply for the fact that now that we stopped, it’s harder than ever before to go back. And now that we’re on our way again, we must seize the moment, least we loose it forever.

What do you mean, harder?

That’s right, I said it’s harder to go to the moon than ever before. But why?

It’s harder to go to the Moon than when Apollo 11 or Gemini or Explorer launched from Cape Canaveral. It’s harder than Jules Verne wrote his inspiring book, From the Earth to the Moon. It’s harder than when Kepler looked to the skies and found that the planets moved in ellipses; harder than when Galileo first spied mountains on the moon. It’s harder than when Copernicus and Aristotle wrote of the heavens; it’s harder than man told tales of vengeful gods and great heroes and strung their images in the heavens, or first looked up at the shimmering orb and decided, I want to be there.

Again, why is it harder? Because we’ve already been.

Because we can always argue, what’s the point? We’ve seen it, we have the data and the photographs. Big whoop-de-doo. We can always send robots there anyway. It’s not like we have to go.

We don’t have to climb Mt. Everest or K2. We don’t have to travel in rickety bulbs of metal and glass to the bottom of the ocean to explore sunken wrecks and unknown, alien species. We don’t have to travel to Africa, or America, or the Amazon; people have already been there, and besides, we can just send robots. I mean, it’s easier, right? And certainly a lot cheaper.

It’s always cheaper and easier to sit back and do nothing. It’s always easier to not have to worry about keeping humans alive; but such research helps us in other areas as well.

But that’s not the point.

It’s the human element. It’s saying, “we’ve overcome all these obstacles, and look at us now.” It’s holding the flag, and planting it in the soil of Plymouth, or the snow of Mt. Everest, or the dust of the Moon; even if you’re not the first, it doesn’t make the moment any less real. It’s about achieving things harder, faster, better; achieving things hardly anyone has achieved before.

We choose to go to the moon in this decade, and do the other things, not because they are easy but because they are hard.

Because that goal will serve to organise and measure the best of our energies and skills.

Because that challenge is one that we’re willing to accept,

one we are unwilling to postpone,

and one which we intend to win,

and the others too.

--President John F. Kennedy, 1962