Resting On Our Laurels

20 07 2016

Forty-seven years ago, a small spacecraft from Earth set down on the surface of the moon. There were two humans onboard, with a third remaining in orbit. Everyone on Earth- or at least those who had access to global information- looked up into the sky at that moment in awe. For a brief moment in time, everyone on Earth connected to international news looked skyward and said, “D-a-a-a-a-amn!”

Since that day, almost a half-century ago, ten more humans travelled from Earth to visit our nearest neighbor in space. They conducted some scientific tests and collected a lot of samples.Then, they all came back home. By any standards, the Apollo program was an amazing technical achievement. Never mind the fact that it would never have happened if not for political and military posturing by earth’s two most powerful nations, it was a truly amazing feat of engineering and science.

Since December in 1972, when Apollo-17 departed, no one has gone back.Think on that for a moment: the high-water mark of manned spaceflight ended forty-four years ago.What happened? Why did we stop?

The late Carl Sagan also wondered about this. He wrote an article in 1989 saying, among other things, “The Moon is no longer unattainable. A dozen humans, all Americans, made those odd skipping motions they called ‘moonwalks’ on the crunchy, cratered, ancient gray lava- beginning on that July day in 1969. But since 1972, no one from any nation has ventured there. Indeed, none of us has gone anywhere since the glory days of Apollo except into low Earth orbit- like a toddler who takes a few tentative steps outward and then, breathless, retreats to the safety of his mother’s skirts.

Once upon a time, we soared into the solar system. For a few years. Then we hurried back. Why? What happened?

For one shining moment, humanity looked out at the vastness of space and knew that the stars were in our future. Then we turned our backs on the stars and went home. Despite the fact that semi-literate children in countries without regular electrical service now walk around with pocket radios with more computing power than any of the Apollo spacecraft, we’ve never gone farther than low-Earth orbit.

Apollo cost the US about $25 Billion at the time. Adjusting for inflation, that runs to a bit over $100 Billion today. One hundred billion dollars today is only about 16% of the US Defense budget (roughly $600 Billion), or a hair under 3% of the entire US budget ($3.54 Trillion).

By the way, do you know how much of the current US budget goes to NASA? $18.5 Billion. Basically one half of one percent (0.52%) of the US budget is used to fund NASA. That’s for everything at NASA- toilet paper, administrator salaries, office supplies, and space.

To put all the data into words: NASA has been achieving amazing science and developing mind-blowing technology, putting robot spacecraft into orbit around planets, moons, asteroids, and comets and dropping robot scouts onto the surface of Mars on a budget consisting of the spare change Uncle Sam found under the couch cushions.

Those robots are doing some outstanding work. For some exploration, they’re actually preferable to humans. But the robots just aren’t as adaptable as a Mark One, Mod Zero educated plains ape. For one example, the Opportunity rover has been on Mars since 2004, and has travelled a bit more than 26 miles in those twelve years. On Earth, humans routinely run that distance in a few hours.

Humans are far more versatile and adaptable than our robots. But they require a lot of very heavy equipment and infrastructure to get them to the exploration site and keep them in working order long enough to get some science done. This is a significant downside to manned spaceflight, but something we can fix. It just takes time and effort-which means money.

We are totally getting our money’s worth out of the Space program using robots, but manned spaceflight could be accomplishing so much more. All it takes is money and the will to use it. We have the money. Hell, trim 5% off the military budget and give it to NASA. That’s roughly $30 Billion dollars more for space exploration, and the military obviously doesn’t need it- the US spends more on our military than the next dozen countries combined. Almost forty percent of all military spending on Earth goes to the US military.

Granted that we need our military to be the best in the world, even by American standards this is overkill. Let us put some of that cash to use out in space, instead. Let us also note that I am not NASA’s friend. Too many scientists and engineers are being sidelined by paper-pushers and politically-connected bozos. But they are the best game in town, so we (the US) has to use NASA, or nothing.

It’s been 44 years since the last humans left the moon. We have been resting on our laurels for far too long. Humans from the United States once walked on the moon. Sooner or later, more humans will be exploring and exploiting the solar system. If we don’t get off our collective asses, we can be fairly certain those people exploring and exploiting the system will not be speaking English.

 

Current status: Pissed off

Current music: The Future Soon by Jonathan Coulton

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