1/14/2011 01:50:00 PM
This week, the newly redesigned Space.com has been running some great content about our friendly neighbor, the Moon. They ran a delightful "Case for the Moon" earlier in the week, quoting yours truly and a number of others who gave reasons why exploring that wonderful, continent-sized off-shore island in the sky makes sense. They've got a cool feature about lunar mining up today. But for now, I want to talk about their post entitled "The Case Against the Moon."
I'll pause a moment to let the boos, hisses, and jeers die down.
Yes, Denise Chow did an admirable job of trying to frame such a case, a job so hard that many observed it seemed to take down the entire Space.com website for a day. For big boosters of lunar exploration (also known as "the good guys"), her article provides a wonderful opportunity to understand that contrary opinion, and to refine our arguments and ensure we are on the right course.
Interestingly enough, though, I find there isn't that much of a case against the Moon in "Case Against of the Moon." I'm not just talking about the fact that the case for was at least two thirds longer than the case against. I'm also referring to the fact that the arguments made in "Against" really weren't arguments against lunar exploration as a whole: rather, they were arguments about priority and strategy. It's even there in the subtitle of the article: "The Case Against the Moon: Why We Shouldn't Go Straight Back [emphasis mine]."
Let's press on and examine the points.
"We've done the Moon – we understand it better than anything else. We've got to stop thinking of short-term hurrahs and start thinking of long-term investments" - Buzz Aldrin, lunar module pilot on the Apollo 11 mission and second man to walk on the Moon
I would hate to have to argue against Dr. Rendezvous. Thankfully, I don't have to--because when Buzz says "we've got to stop thinking of short-term hurrahs and start thinking of long-term investments," he couldn't be more right. Indeed, that's probably one reason why Buzz was so kind as to help us kick off the Google Lunar X PRIZE. We created the Google Lunar X PRIZE to help start a new era of lunar exploration--Moon 2.0--that isn't about short-term bragging rights, but is absolutely about a sustainable program of exploration that will last for generations, as alluded to in the plaque signed by so many of the Apollo Moonwalkers, and read aloud by Buzz in this clip:
I also happen to know from experience that although Buzz believes it when he says we know the Moon better than anything else (planetary exploration wise, at least), he also knows we don't really know it very much at all. We've just barely scratched the surface of the Moon, exploring from the surface only a cumulative area about the size of Manhattan from a total surface area about the size of Africa and Australia put together. And even though we've seen so little, we are still doing significant and important science on that data, even though it is ~40 years old!
So, let's say that Dr. Aldrin is right (no surprise there), but also note that he doesn't make any case at all against Moon 2.0-style lunar exploration.
"As long as I've been involved in spaceflight, for about 20 years now, there has been this debate going on between ... the Martians and the Lunatics – the people who want to go to Mars, and the people who want to go back to the Moon. No one side has the clear-cut answer. There are positives and negatives for both." - Roger Launius, senior space history curator at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington
Again, this doesn't really sound so bad. Clearly Dr. Launius is right (again, no surprise there)--there are both positives and negatives to the arguments for Moon-before-Mars and for Mars-before-Moon. There are an enormous number of absolutely compelling reasons to go to Mars, and no one should assume that just because we announced the Google Lunar X PRIZE rather than a Google Martian X PRIZE that we don't think Martain exploration is worthy. We do think it is very worth; but we also think that commercial involvement has the potential to make lunar exploration financially sustainable over the long term now, while the similar statement isn't yet true for Mars.
The article has a bit more from Dr. Launius: he "said returning to the moon could address important scientific questions, such as the existence of water ice, but with the objective of traveling to Mars on the horizon, he wonders whether it would cause NASA to be 'sidetracked with years upon years of lunar exploration.'"
No, while years and years of lunar exploration is an awfully nice things to be sidetracked with, Dr. Launius has a point. We don't want NASA to do only lunar exploration. Nor do we want only NASA to be doing lunar exploration. Again, that's one of the points of the Google Lunar X PRIZE. We want to--in Dr. Launius's words--"'unleash a kind of furor of innovation' and heighten interest in space exploration" with this prize, leading to an increase in overall space exploration and a logical division of labor that sees civil space agencies and commercial firms working in healthy tandem.
Moon 2.0 seems to pass this test, as well. Next, please!
"A return to the Moon should not be NASA's primary goal or focus in this decade. Rather, the proper goal of NASA's human spaceflight program should be human missions to Mars. From a technological point of view, we are much closer today to being able to send humans to Mars than we were to sending men to the moon in 1961, and we were there eight years later." - Robert Zubrin, president of the Mars Society
Another giant of the field that I'd hate to have to argue against--how many of us in this industry were gripped and inspired by reading The Case for Mars? But again, Dr. Zubrin isn't making a case against the Moon. He's making the case against the Moon being NASA's "primary goal or focus in this decade." One can make coherent and persuasive arguments in favor of the Moon, Mars, Asteroids, or maybe even other places being NASA's primary focus of the next decade, to be sure. That's another nice aspect of Moon 2.0: the capabilities of commercial firms and international partners will allow NASA to have a very productive lunar exploration program even if the Moon is not the primary focus!
Believe it or not, we only really have one point left.
"I think Mars, given that it holds the potential for making life multi-planetary, is much more important than the Moon, and that should be the focus of future manned exploration. However, if there turns out to be a market for traveling to the Moon, SpaceX will support that just as we support LEO activity." - Elon Musk, CEO of SpaceX
It almost seems unfair to end on this one, doesn't it? I mean, it's such a gimme! Elon is trustee at the X PRIZE Foundation and spoke at the announcement of the Google Lunar X PRIZE, and SpaceX is a Preferred Partner of the Google Lunar X PRIZE, which is starting off that market Elon refers to in his quote.
Again, Elon's quote is not a case against the Moon, it's a case against only-the-Moon. Which, again, we agree with. Not too much else we need to say here, so we'll just drop in this nice video of Elon and X PRIZE Foundation founder Peter Diamandis talking about space at Google Zeitgeist 2008:
So, there you have it! Really not any case strictly against the Moon at all. If anything, most of the comments and points made here by the very illustrious experts are generally arguments showing that need lunar exploration to be more like Moon 2.0--international, participatory, and sustainable--than it is like the first era of lunar exploration. Now that's a case we can fully support.
Photo Credit: Low-fi mash-up made by me. Original source material by Flickr users Thomas Frejek (Moon) and Nelson Wade (Case), each published under Creative Commons Licences.