Monday, December 11, 2006

To the Moon, Alice

OK, now I'm worried. Gregg Easterbrook is writing on science, a scary enough prospect in itself, and I'm agreeing with him! He doesn't like NASA's plan, or should we call it a "vision," of creating a permanent Moon base. This plan is inspired, no doubt, by the fabulous success of it's space shuttle and manned space station, the funding of which sucked up the money planned for the Superconducting Super Collider and about ten times as much more as well. About the next stupidity:

The United States will have a permanent base on the moon by the year 2024, NASA officials said on Monday. What does the space agency hope to discover on the moon? The reason it built the base.

Coming under a presidency whose slogan might be "No Price Too High To Accomplish Nothing," the idea of a permanent, crewed moon base nevertheless takes the cake for preposterousness. Although, of course, the base could yield a great discovery, its scientific value is likely to be small while its price is extremely high. Worse, moon-base nonsense may for decades divert NASA resources from the agency's legitimate missions, draining funding from real needs in order to construct human history's silliest white elephant.

What's it for? Good luck answering that question. There is scientific research to be done on the moon, but this could be accomplished by automatic probes or occasional astronaut visits at a minute fraction of the cost of a permanent, crewed facility. Astronauts at a moon base will spend almost all their time keeping themselves alive and monitoring automated equipment, the latter task doable from an office building in Houston. In deadpan style, the New York Times story on the NASA announcement declared, "The lunar base is part of a larger effort to develop an international exploration strategy, one that explains why and how humans are returning to the moon and what they plan to do when they get there." Oh–so we'll build the moon base first, and then try to figure out why we built it.


The main lessons learned from the Space Shuttle and the International Space Station are:
1) It's hard to live in space.

2) Going there is a good way to get killed.

3) Fabulous sums can thus be funnelled to aerospace corporations.

I think it's safe to say that Bush's Excellent Lunar Adventure could easily consume quite a bit more than the $200 billion or so so far spent on the space station - shuttle disaster (Easterbrook says $300 billion, minimum, but that looks lowball to me). The same amount of money spent on basic physics and space science could fund rovers and obiters for Mars, the Moon, and Titan, plus several more generations of particle colliders, space and ground based telescopes for exploring other solar systems and the cosmos, and gravitational wave detectors. Instead, this program, if attempted, will cannabalize all those programs just as the Shuttle & ISP did before.

Gregg, has his own ideas for what NASA should do, and they aren't crazy. He doesn't often write intelligently on science, but he did this time. Mild mannered and unaccoustomed to ranting, myself, I can only report his final senstence without other comment:
With public-good space needs unmet and the enunciation of a moon-base plan that will waste colossal sums of public money, agency director Michael Griffin has simply raised NASA's middle finger to the taxpayer.

Did I promise not to comment? Sorry about that. I expect that the fingers involved are really Karl Rove's rather than Griffin's.

UPDATE: Hmmm. How embarassing. It seems Sean Carroll published an identically titled piece on the same subject about a week earlier.