Monday, April 30, 2007

Fly Me To The Moon

I didn't realize it'd been a week since I last blogged. Man. It's just been one of those weeks, with a deluge of bread-and-butter paying work (an essentially mindless copy editing job, which I enjoy once in a while) and more speculative maybe-it'll-pay-someday work that I hope to tell you about later. "Too busy" is a poor excuse but it's the only one I've got.

Meanwhile, here's a new video from NASA intended to get people talking about returning to the Moon:

You probably heard something about this a few months back: NASA is making plans to establish a permanent manned (peopled?) lunar base, probably at the Moon's south pole, somewhen around 2020. There's a nice summary of the plan and links to other resources here.

What impresses me most about this video is its coolness. NASA ought to be about inspiring new generations of up-and-coming taxpayers to explore the final frontier, yet all too often their public face is as dry and uninspiring as an actuarial convention (no offense to actuaries).** C'mon, people! These are real scientists, engineers, pilots and explorers seeing and doing things that no one has ever seen or done before! Making it exciting should be the easy part. This little film might be criticized for looking too much like a video game or movie trailer, but its the first sign of life I've seen out of NASA in a long time so I like it.

My personal position on building a Moon base: Hell yes, where do I volunteer? Although I hit the tail end of the Baby Boom, I consider myself a Space Age kid more than a Boomer. But I also grew up, and I think if NASA and the United States commit to returning to the Moon we need to have an honest, grown-up discussion about why we're doing it. And the fact is, there is almost no scientific justification for sending people to live on the Moon, and even less economic justification. Anything humans could study or mine from the lunar surface could be accomplished cheaper and safer in near-Earth orbit or by robots. We built a space station on the promises of the scientific breakthroughs and amazing commercial opportunities it would deliver, but it hasn't yielded a single paper in the scientific literature or an industrial process or product anyone wants to buy. We won't fall for the same argument again. As far as I'm concerned, the only real reason for returning to the Moon is to live there: colonization. Expand our one-planet species to two.

Is that reason enough? It is for me: I think humanity's growth into the galaxy is inevitable and I'd like to live to see it. In fact, give me a fast Internet uplink and I could do about 98% of my job on the Moon as well as I do it here (though I'm sure the 1.3-second time delay due to the pesky limit imposed by the speed of light would be frustrating--almost like being back on dial-up). The ultimate telecommute.

Is it reason enough for everyone else? I dunno ... but I'm pretty sure that's where the debate should be: not about advancing science or exploiting new resources, arguments the pro-returners would lose on their merits. The question is, are we ready to grow up, move out of the spacious and comfortable family home, and set ourselves up in a grungy little studio apartment across town? I say we are, but I think I'm in a small minority.
**Speaking of interesting lines of work, a couple of weeks ago my wife and I stayed at a hotel hosting the International Canned Fruit Conference. The lobby and elevators were full of business-suited conferees wearing badges from nations around the world, all of them evidently deadly serious about their canned fruit. I could only wonder what recent amazing advances have been made in the science of fruit canning to justify the time and expense of gathering people from Peru, Greece and Russia to learn about them. You'd think that'd be something you could handle with a brief newsletter, plus maybe a phone call for the really big breakthroughs. But apparently not. Who knew?


Sherwood Harrington said...

I have the headline feed from New Scientist on my personalized Google page. By sheer coincidence, the top story right now (as I type) is headlined
NASA denies snubbing Russia's Moon offer

China, too, intends to have a manned base on the Moon by 2020. A good article on the Chinese program can be found
here, in Mark Wade's Encyclopaedia Astronautica

Now, if only I could write a blog entry about serious cartooning as you just did about space exploration...

Namowal said...

I'm up for a moon base.

1. It would be cool (not the most cerebral justification, but honest)!
2. It's nearby. It's hanging in the sky like a ripe fruit on a high branch that one CAN reach if they take the trouble to haul out the ladder.
Most space objects are ridiculously far away. I say we take advantage of what's within our grasp.

R said...

Whoooo! Ya, let's go to the Moon!

Besides, I don't see what the big argument is. Even if there was nothing else (which I'm not saying is true), the idea's so absoltuely cool that it wouldn't matter anyway!

ronnie said...

In some interesting space-news today, Malaysia has written a guidebook to help its first astronaut, a Muslim, and his Muslim brothers and sisters, figure out how to keep being good Muslims in space.
Story here.

Imagine trying to keep oriented towards one spot on earth (Mecca) while praying, five times a day, from orbit!

Fortunately, the guide advises that "the direction should be determined 'according to the capability' of the astronaut".

Similar guidelines for eating halal in space - if the astronaut believes the meal is not halal, s/he fortunately does not have to starve to death, but is advised to eat "only to the extent of restraining hunger".

So you can eat NASA McNuggets if they're all that's available. You just can't enjoy a lot of NASA McNuggets.

And people say Islam isn't a reasonable religion.


Sherwood Harrington said...

There's more available on the station than NASA, stuff, ronniecat -- according to the NASA Food Technology Commercial Space Center, about half of the food on the ISS is Russian, and: "Cultural differences between the two food systems [American and Russian]include the lack of any typical American breakfast foods and increased quantities of fish in the Russian menu. Some of their breakfast items include perch, both pickled and spiced, and foxberry juice, a mixture of wild cranberry and buckwheat gruel. Several thermostabilized and dehydrated cottage cheese items appear in the menu, mostly with fruit. And of course we cannot have Russian food without borsch."

So our Muslim astronaut will need to consume only enough buckwheat gruel to stave off hunger, which will probably be pretty easy to limit himself to.

Brian Fies said...

I appreciate the comments! When it really gets down to it, I agree that the best reason to build a Moon base is that it'd be COOOOOL! So how many hundreds of billions of dollars is that worth?

Re: space food, apparently NASA's gotten very good at it, way beyond the gooey paste of the old days. One of the interesting things I know about it is that they have to make it really spicy, since apparently your taste bud sensitivity changes in zero-gravity (probably something to do with fluids filling up your noggin--astronauts' faces also get bloaty). Anyway, it's probably no worse than what a college kid lives on these days (if only I knew some college kids....).

Thanks again, nice to hear from everyone.

R said...

CAN'T be worse, after all they probably pay more for it. And I don't know what that much ramen, cereal, and sugary stuff would do to a person in outer space... probably nothing pretty...

And what's a few hundrend billion or two? It's just money! Not like it's being put to good use now! Public education, pssh, who needs it?

Cheese Boy said...

I want to live on the moon, if only for the never-ending supply of cheese. I really like cheese.

ronnie said...

Sherwood, the book Dragonfly: Nasa and the Crisis Aboard Mir, about the difficult relationships between Russian and American astronauts aboard Mir in the late 90s and the crises that they faced (the fire, the crash with the docking supply ship) identifies some distinct differences btwn Russian and American diets on-board - notably, the Russians brought their own stash of junk-food (from potato chips to pickled mackerel) which they ate at will and didn't record in their food diaries, and they also smuggled small bottles of vodka aboard and drank those as well! The American astronaut who reported this was appalled, while they laughed at him for recording his NASA meals religiously in his diary.

As for who caused the misstep which caused the crash of the station and the docking ship (it is speculated in the book that the American, floating weightless, accidentally kicked a lever), the Russian Commander would say only: "Some things are just between astronauts."


Otis Frampton said...

Great post, Brian.

I'd love to see a new major mission for NASA. The last moon mission was in the year of my birth. As an Apollo nut, I feel like I completely missed the boat when it comes to the space age.

I hope I live to see a manned mission to Mars. That would be an amazing mission to follow.