Looking Forward from Apollo Plus 50

There will be a lot of retrospectives today (oddly enough) as we’ve reached 50 years since the first landing of human beings on the Moon. I’m going to try looking forward. There’s so much left to do!

Why We Stopped Going to the Moon

One reason conspiracy theorists can have such fun poking at space advocates and professionals about the Moon landing being a hoax is because we stopped going in 1972. The reasons for that stopping are worth examining.

The “space race” was won and John F. Kennedy’s pledge to beat the Soviet Union was fulfilled. It really was a bit of moxie for JFK to push for a human lunar landing when at the time of his speech we hadn’t done anything more than launch Alan Shepard on a suborbital flight into the Caribbean Sea. Yet the United States did it. Mission accomplished, end of story, right?

Space advocates and professionals at the time couldn’t believe we would go to the Moon and stop, yet that’s what we did. By the late 1960s, NASA was consuming 4-5% of the federal budget at a time when we were ramping up the “Great Society” programs to fight poverty and ramping down the Vietnam War to contain communism in Southeast Asia.

The space program’s very success killed it. Kennedy (and Lyndon Johnson after him) wanted to use space as a way to demonstrate the efficacy of government (and government spending) to solve problems. The refrain became, “If we can put a man on the Moon, why can’t we end [insert social problem here]?” Once people saw government spend money on space and succeed, the assumption was that success could also be achieved by throwing money at other problems (poverty, urban blight, etc.). However, technical problems turned out to be a lot more tractable than social ones. We have flags and footprints on the Moon, hundreds of satellites in orbit, and robots on Mars, orbiting other worlds, and speeding out of the solar system. The poor are still with us.

Another constant anti-space refrain was (and remains), “Why spend all that money on space when there are so many more important problems here on Earth?” There are multiple answers to this, but most people asking the question really just expect the question to end the discussion. Au contraire. Spending on space does benefit life on Earth. It’s not just a matter of keeping NASA civil servants and contractors employed (“corporate welfare”). The exploration of space–both by humans and robots–has benefitted humanity in ways we’re still enjoying, going back to Galileo, Isaac Newton, and other astronomers who used investigations of the solar system to learn how gravity worked on this world.

Space is such a unique and challenging environment that it requires very specialized materials and technologies to get objects (and people) up there safely and successfully. Earth’s gravity of 9.8 meters per second squared (32 feet per second squared) must be overcome. That requires exotic fuels like liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen; super-strong elements like titanium; and manufactured materials like Inconel to make rocket engines strong enough to withstand temperatures exceeding 3,000 degrees. Hard vacuum makes it impossible to breathe, and it also causes some materials to “outgas,” releasing particles of matter throughout a spacecraft (think of “new car smell,” which is what happens when leftover material in new products is released into the air). The radiation environment beyond our atmosphere is lethal. Electronics can be fried by solar flares. Micrometeoroids anywhere from grains of sand to pebbles can zip by at several miles/kilometers per second. One by one, human beings designed materials and technologies to withstand (within reasonable limits) all of these environmental extremes. Along the way, materials with such unique qualities also found ways to benefit life here on Earth.

A common argument against the benefit of “spinoffs” is that we could have spent the money here to develop a better Earth-based widget. Maybe so, but without the need to operate in space, there would be very little incentive to develop completely new materials or approaches to problem solving. Just to take one example: integrated circuits (small chips with multiple circuits on each one) already existed at the time of Apollo. However, at the time, a computer capable of landing on the Moon would normally be the size of a large room. The requirement to compress Moon-landing capability into a machine one cubic foot in size accelerated the race toward miniaturization that benefits us today. The Apollo lunar module (LM) computer operated with something like 32 kilobytes of memory. Your average cell phone operates with 32 or 64 gigabytes—a million-fold improvement in 50 years.

Would we have that sort of portable computing today if we hadn’t been forced to cram a room-sized computer into a beach ball? Or would we have stuck with the IBM “big machines” of the time? I leave that as an exercise for the reader.

Space exploration also has an inspirational and aspirational effect. If our young people see the nation doing exciting, ambitious things in space, they might be encouraged to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). This is a constant NASA refrain, and yet it should be noted that the United States did fund more STEM degrees in response to the challenge from the Soviet Union. Not everyone who pursued those degrees went to work for the space program, but still contributed to our overall national development by becoming scientists, engineers, doctors, and researchers.

Still, our public morality and sensitivities have changed in 50 years. NASA no longer talks about space as a “frontier” for fear of giving offense. The frontier narrative died from multiple modern sensitivities:

  • It didn’t work out well for Native Americans, who were displaced or killed by European settlers.
  • The idea of pursuing “Manifest Destiny” in space perceived as colonialist or outright racist.

So what justifications could we find for going to space anymore, now that we lack a Cold War competitor and a belief in “Manifest Destiny?”

Looking Forward

Another common argument I hear (which I disagree with, obviously) is, “Why should we explore other worlds when we’ve screwed up this world so badly?” Mind you, pollution was a lot worse in this country when the first Earth Day was founded in 1970, and the environmental movement took the Apollo 8 “Earthrise” photo as its symbol. We’re obviously not perfect, as the fears about plastics in our oceans and increasing carbon dioxide in our atmosphere demonstrate. But we are working on it, which up until 1970 we really weren’t. Space exploration and development can help us do more to help this planet.

Space has resources we could use to address some of these issues—asteroids contain metals we could mine instead of strip-mining and poisoning Earth. Solar energy–much more intense in space where there are no day/night cycles or atmosphere in the way–could be transmitted to the surface for electrical power. Looking further down line, a somewhat rare form of helium–helium-3–is found on the surface of the Moon and in the atmospheres of the gas giants in the outer solar system. Helium-3 can be used for a low-radiation form of fusion power, which produces even more energy per unit of material than nuclear fission.

Regarding the understandable dislike of the “frontier narrative,” I should point out that unlike the American West, there is no life on asteroids or the Moon to harm–recall the extreme conditions listed above. If there is life on Mars, it’s likely bacterial at most, and most likely living underground. However, Mars has a barely existent atmosphere comprising mostly carbon dioxide. It’s not enough to shield against ultraviolet radiation, which causes sunburns on Earth and, at higher intensities is used to sterilize (kill off bacteria) here on Earth. The Martian regolith (crushed rock on the surface–it can’t be called “soil” because it lacks organic matter) is chock-full of chemically active peroxides, most likely poisonous. The likelihood of finding anything approaching a plant or animal as we understand them keeps diminishing as we send more probes to Mars. Terraforming Mars (changing the atmosphere to make it more Earthlike) could be an improvement–though we’ll have to go there ourselves, most likely, to confirm that.

The sad fact is that governments on Earth are unlikely to spend an Apollo-like level of money on space again unless the expenditure is seen as a priority. An emergency like the approach of a dinosaur-killer asteroid might get government’s attention…or the discovery of intelligent life close to our solar system. Or, someone might think space-based solar power is worth investigating. China and Japan have already expressed interest in that technology. Why don’t we?

In the near term (perhaps the next 10-20 years), we’re going to see a mix of government and commercial activities in space. Virgin Galactic wants to put tourists into suborbital space. SpaceX and Blue Origin want to send humans to the International Space Station, the Moon, and Mars. And yes, NASA is still in the game, despite suffering from constant political wind shifts. It’s still building the Space Launch System rocket and human-rated Orion spacecraft, with current plans to include a station in lunar orbit as well. Planetary Resources and Deep Space Industries want to mine the asteroids. Everyone is still building and budgets and economic/political circumstances are constantly changing, so it’s hard to see who will do what first–but the fact remains, human beings are getting more involved in space activities, using technologies surpassing anything available in 1969. We have exciting things to look forward to. With any luck, by the time I reach my 100th birthday, I’ll have the opportunity to participate in or see some of them.

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