Chair Force Engineer

Thursday, July 16, 2009

From the Earth to the Moolah

For everybody contemplating the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 landings, I recommend heartily this retrospective by Ronald Bailey. In a world where "No Bucks" means "No Buck Rogers," Project Apollo was a grandiose feat, but one that could not be justified with sustained funding levels. "Flags and footprints" served the important geopolitical goal of demonstrating that a free society could be technologically superior to a totalitarian one. Once that goal was met, neither scientific curiosity nor heroic adventure could justify the expenses of further human lunar missions.

As a simple math equation, the Moon represents a goal to which the nation sinks its funds. Out of the moon come tangible and intangible benefits like scientific discovery, inspiration, and consumer spinoffs of space-related technologies. But even when taken together, these benefits of lunar exploration are hard-pressed to qualify as a return on investment on the funds that are spent on human lunar missions.

The answer to a sustained human lunar program is a capitalist approach in which profit is the primary motivation. Perhaps tourism or Helium-3 mining will motivate humans to return to the moon to stay. NASA may have paved the way, but firms like SpaceX and United Launch Alliance will be there to stay. We may not see the financial motivations for lunar exploration develop in my lifetime (and I stand a good chance of making it past 2040.) But all good things happen when the time is right, and when society is mature enough to handle their consequences.

There will always exist the cold warriors whose motivations behind Project Constellation mirror those of the Apollo cold warriors in racing the Soviets. This time the specter of Communist China is the new boogeyman. In spite of a methodically-paced human spaceflight plan and the lack of lunar hardware development, many people see imminent lunar ambitions behind China's current manned space efforts. Perhaps China will land a human on the moon during my lifetime. But any Chinese lunar effort that fails to learn Apollo's lessons is doomed to the same fate. If the Chinese Politboro no longer sees an overriding political goal in lunar exploration, they'll quickly view a human lunar program as a money pit from which they'll inevitably flee.