Friday, October 12, 2007

A Permanent Moon Base?

On Tuesday, October 8th, I had the opportunity to attend a colloquium presented by Wendell Mendell, Manager of Human Exploration Science Division at NASA's Johnson Space Center. Dr. Mendell is one of NASA's top people in trying to figure out what to do with the "Vision for Space Exploration" that NASA has adopted. President Bush and the U.S. Congress have decided that NASA's focus should be the human exploration of the solar system and that this should be done by returning men to the moon and then putting a human on Mars. There is one primary question that Dr. Mendell deals with : what are we going to do on the moon and later Mars when we get there?

The idea that NASA is currently pursuing is that between 2020 and 2024, NASA will establish a permanent lunar base on either the north or south pole of the Moon. Like the current International Space Station, the lunar base will have a few (Dr. Mendell's current prediction is about 3) occupants who are rotated in and out every 6-12 months. If this comes to fruition (and it looks like it will), the question that has to be answered is what will these people do on the moon? There is no sense at all in spending billions of dollars to get them there and keep them alive unless we have some good reasons for them to be there, so what are those good reasons?

In Dr. Mendell's colloquium, he presented NASA's list of 6 reasons to go to the moon. They include things like opportunities for technological advancement, development of new resources, increasing public interest in math and science, and so on. However, if I were to put words in Dr. Mendell's mouth, the main reason for NASA's moon base is to lead the way for others to build their own moon bases. Essentially, the idea is that NASA could show others how to do it, and then these other groups would privately fund the colonization of the moon. These groups may be commercial groups interested in tourism, industrial groups looking for cheap power (solar cells work wonderfully in space), raw materials, and an escape from pollution laws, or other unexpected groups. If we take the analogy of the American west, there could be any number of groups seeking wealth, freedom, or adventure. Dr. Mendell even suggested religious groups might want to set up their own "moral society" on the moon, which I thought was a bit silly until I remembered how Utah was settled.

After Dr. Mendell had finished his presentation, the lights came back on, the dreams of future marvels faded a bit, and a room full of skeptical scientists proceeded to ask the most blistering questions I have ever heard posed to a colloquium speaker. As many of you know, many scientists feel that NASA's new emphasis on human space exploration is taking money away from more worthwhile scientific endeavors. Several professors very bluntly stated technological, physical, and political challenges would make it so that a lunar base would be a waste of time and money.

After the colloquium, I was left unsure of what to think about the idea of a permanent lunar base. On one hand, as Stephen Hawking famously said, "I think the human race has no future if it doesn't go into space". As we increase our ability to change our world, the chance that we could irreparably damage or destroy it grows exponentially. If humanity is going to survive, I think it needs to expand beyond a single world and it seems like the moon and then Mars are the places to start.

On the other hand, I agree with the idea that human space exploration is probably taking money away from more important and timely science research. For example, NASA has cut funding or delayed a number of projects like the Constellation-X X-ray Observatory and the LISA gravitational wave detection satellites that could provide more science for the money.

So I thought I'd pose the question to you. Do you think NASA should build a permanent lunar base in the next 15 years? And on a broader note, is human exploration of space worth the cost or should we stay on our planet and let probes, robots, and telescopes do the exploring?


  1. My personal feelings are that if we wait a few more years before we start exploring space some technologies may be available that will make it significantly easier and/or cheaper. On the flip side we may not actually see these technologies unless we actually go into space. For example the sextant would most likely never had been developed if people didn't try building boats and crossing large bodies of water.

    So there needs to be a balance of waiting for technology to develop and just going despite not having the adequate technology because our going will spur the development.

    So in my opinion now is a good time to go back, because we now have enough technology to make it practical (i.e. we can do it with out killing ourselves), but there is much that can be developed. It is sad that money is being taken away from large projects like LISA, but if we are on the moon it might make building a LISA type project easier.

  2. Personally, I don't know what is best. We need some good PR stuff going on like moon bases because the public is more excited about that than things like, I don't know, detecting neutrinos. But if you can get the public really excited about science through some PR stuff they will be more willing to support funding scientific research.

    However, it is a drain on money, and as a scientist once told me: It will be a million times easier to inhabit Antarctica than any planet other than earth.

    Because of this, if you think we need to do space exploration for future human colonization reasons like some claim you have a much more practical chance of colonizing Antarctica.

  3. Sorry I changed topics to quickly in the second paragraph above. I had to leave and when I came back I forgot what my former train of logic was.


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