To the Moon, Again?

During a quick lunch break today, I read about H.R. 1641 on Bad Astronomy:

To direct the National Aeronautics and Space Administration to plan to return to the Moon and develop a sustained human presence on the Moon.

(Hilariously, this bill is titled the “REAL Space Act.”)

Like Phil, I think it’s interesting that this act puts a focus on national security issues. I think that’s a stretch – nobody today feels that China getting to the Moon would be as much of a threat as the Soviets getting there in the ’60s. Still, the military and security rationale for having a sustained presence in space is a powerful one. After all, while Armstrong’s first and Cernan’s last words on the Moon put peaceful exploration front and center, Kennedy’s original speech proposing the goal of “landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth” contained, just a couple paragraphs previously, this:

Recognizing the head start obtained by the Soviets with their large rocket engines, which gives them many months of leadtime, and recognizing the likelihood that they will exploit this lead for some time to come in still more impressive successes, we nevertheless are required to make new efforts on our own. … But this is not merely a race. Space is open to us now; and our eagerness to share its meaning is not governed by the efforts of others. We go into space because whatever mankind must undertake, free men must fully share.

Got that? Free men must share! The Soviets will exploit space! As Neil deGrasse Tyson paraphrased in a speech, we chose to go to the Moon…in order to kill Commies. Beating the drums makes for a powerful emotional argument, and it’s how our government decides to do a lot of things, from Moon landings to interstate highways.

Personally speaking, I have mixed feelings about this “REAL Space Act.” On the positive side, I think bill represents the way Congress should be treating the space program: giving it lofty goals, and assuring it of funding to support those goals. Oh, what a lovely world that would be!

Still, I’m becoming more and more cynical about Congress and NASA. Congressmembers have fallen into the habit of treating NASA like a big, fat, popular-and-thus-untouchable pork barrel. For instance, in the most recent NASA authorization bill, Congress did not specify where NASA was to go…but they specified exactly what NASA was going to build to go there (a heavy-lift rocket), what technologies NASA was to use on it (solid rocket boosters), and which manufacturer was to supply them (ATK). Oh, that must have been a wonderful bill for ATK, but I have severe doubts as to how much good that approach does for the space program. Instead, I like the approach of giving the space program broad objectives and letting NASA’s engineers make engineering decisions, and this bill seems more amenable to that approach.

However, I’m not sure that going to the Moon in 10 years is a good enough objective. It took us about eight years to go from 15 minutes of human spaceflight experience to landing on the Moon…in the Sixties. With, you know, vacuum tubes and slide rules. My point is: if we really wanted to, I mean really wanted to,¬†we could dust off old blueprints, pull out a big pile of money, and be on the Moon again two or three years from today. What this new bill lacks is something that makes it sound more like we’re going to be doing something that will qualify as a great achievement for the 21st century.

The key might be that “sustained presence.” If the goal is not just to put people on the Moon in 2022, but to have people there and keep going

That needs to be spelled out. Congress might think it too science-fictiony, but I think words like “asteroid” or “Mars” or “colony” need to get top billing here.

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