January 09, 2004

To Infinity and Beyond

It will come as no surprise to regular readers that I am quite excited about the pre-announcement story out of the White House that W is going to propose a Moon base and manned Mars mission. My excitement is only tempered by two factors.

First, the timescale is ridiculous. There is talk of Moon missions by 2013 and men on Mars by 2030. We got to the Moon the first time less than seven years after President Kennedy's famous speech at Rice University -- just over eight years after Alan Shepard first entered space. We got there six times (out of seven) in a tin can, with technology dwarfed by my pocket calculator, not to mention the laptop on which I write this blog. How much more could we do and how much faster could we do it today?

The biggest hurdle to a quick lunar trip? The demand for a risk-free mission. No one takes any chances anymore. Just look at the war in Iraq. The media tries to drum up the terrible cost of war with each soldier that gets killed (as if war isn't about killing people). It is all supposed to be sanitary and precise. No one pushes the envelope anymore. As Milt Heflin, head of NASA's flight director's office, told Reuters, "I'm not sure you could get the lunar module (of 1969) approved for flight today. The mission would probably be too risky."

If NASA is ever going to do anything - if mankind is ever going to go anywhere off this planet - they are going to have to follow the advice of the archtypal space explorer, in one of the greatest speeches ever delivered.

If we could get to the Moon tomorrow - or realistically in the next four years - why wait twenty-six years to go to Mars? When I was a small child at the height of the Apollo program, I had sets of 1970 and 1971 World Book encyclopaedias. In the article on space travel, there were diagrams of Mars travel and what a Mars-bound spacecraft could look like (bit like yet-to-be-conceived space shuttle) with suggestions that this was quite a way into the future, well into the 1980s.

That was written at a time when it was unthinkable that plug would be pulled on the greatest programme of exploration ever undertaken. This was not going across an ocean to a new continent. It was not even travelling around the whole world. It was travelling the equivalent of ten times around the globe through the void of space.

In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue (with breathable air plentifully available) in a ship approximately 23.5 metres long. He had two other ships with him. He had 87 men. In 1969, Neil Armstrong sailed the ocean black in a ship 11.03 metres long (the total habitable space was 6.17 m3). The only other ship was a dingy made of aluminum foil.

Technologically we are almost as far ahead of the Columbia and Eagle as they were of the Niña, Pinta, and Santa Maria. We can do this.

I mentioned that there were two factors that tempered my excitement. The second is related to the first. Because of the stretched out time scale, there is plenty of time for future administrations and congressional sessions to pull the plug on this, just like Congress and the Clinton administration did to similar plans laid out by GHW Bush. Sustaining the political willpower over two decades (or even longer if any glitches threaten a risk-free mission) will be very difficult.

Posted by david at January 9, 2004 11:33 PM | TrackBack