Chair Force Engineer

Sunday, December 14, 2008

That Other Anniversary

Every space enthusiast seems to have some way of commemorating July 20th, the anniversary of when humans first walked on the surface of the moon. But few seem to mark that other anniversary: December 14, 1972, when humans last walked on the moon. For all of the jubilation on Apollo's success in landing a man on the moon before the decade was out, there is very little introspection on why Apollo gave us a tease of a space-faring future that has yet to come to fruition.

The success of Apollo can be credited to a well-run program packed with technical and management genius, flush with cash from a cold-war defense buildup. Conversely, the end of Apollo can be attributed to a decline in national will to continue the lunar effort, making it impossible to justify the human risk and national expenditures that were required to continue sending humans to the moon. Even after the risk was reduced and the development costs were sunk, a majority of Americans didn't want to keep cranking out Saturn rockets and launching them to further our understanding of our moon.

As NASA again embarks on the Apollo adventure, the questions of how we will sustain the lunar program have not been adequately addressed. If the cold war wasn't justification enough for a nationally-funded effort at sustained lunar missions, what is? I doubt that the use of NASA as a government jobs program can justify it alone. With regards to keeping people on the government payroll, sustained lunar missions don't have much advantage over, say, a sustained earth-orbital program such as the shuttle.

It's difficult to see Project Constellation sustaining itself beyond a few sortie missions, if it even achieves the lunar goal to begin with. Humans will only sustain a presence on the moon if a profit motive exists to do so. It doesn't matter if we're talking about the United States, Russia, China, or any other spacefaring world power. If the economic justification does not exist, the lunar landings will be an unsustainable stunt. Until a profitable reason to put humans on the moon exists, a sustained human presence on the moon will have to wait.

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