Congress to NASA: go to the Moon

Bad Astronomy
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April 27 2011 7:00 AM

Congress to NASA: go to the Moon

So, what do you do with the rocket capable of lifting 130 tons off the Earth that's requested of NASA in the Presidential budget for 2012?

Some Congresscritters in the US House have an idea. They want NASA to go back to the Moon.

Phil Plait Phil Plait

Phil Plait writes Slate’s Bad Astronomy blog and is an astronomer, public speaker, science evangelizer, and author of Death From the Skies!  

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Hmmm.

A bill making this case was recently submitted to the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology where it'll be debated. I have no idea if it'll get out of committee, let alone pass on the floor of the House.

But it's interesting. The bill, HR 1641, states as its purpose:

To direct the National Aeronautics and Space Administration to plan to return to the Moon and develop a sustained human presence on the Moon.

Ah, that word, "sustained". It fills me with nachas, as my mom would say. Whenever I look at the Moon, every time, I wonder when we'll go back.

HR 1641 lists many reasons to go back, and indeed hits the high notes of increased knowledge of science, developing advanced technology, improving our long-term economy, and inspiring young people.

But then it says this:

(10) Space is the world's ultimate high ground, returning to the Moon and reinvigorating our human space flight program is a matter of national security.

(11) Technologies developed and sustained by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's human space flight program, such as liquid and solid rocket propulsion, environmental and life support systems, and communications, navigation, and control systems are important to our military.

(12) China and Russia, understanding the economic and strategic importance of human space flight, have declared their intentions of colonizing the Moon and are advancing their lunar exploration plans.

(13) It is strategically important that the United States possess and maintain the capabilities of unfettered operation in the space domain, and not cede the space domain to other nations.

Yeah, well. It's true that China wants to go to the Moon, and Russia may or may not have the wherewithal to do it, but I'm not happy with this being a motivation for us to go back. I don't like the idea of using the dreaded "other" as an impetus for space exploration. We've done this in the past -- the whole reason we went to the Moon in the 60s was to beat the Soviets -- and look what happened there. Yes, we went, and it was magnificent, but as soon as political winds changed Apollo was canceled. Apollo 14 hadn't even lifted off when the last missions were taken off the books.

Some space advocates call Apollo a "flags and footprints" mission: get there just to get there. That's what a space race tends to do. Once you win, what then? Well, you're done. You've won.

But when we go back to the Moon, it shouldn't be a race. I want us to go back to stay. Get there, set up shop, figure out how to establish life there and then sustain it.

I talk to schoolkids quite a bit, and sometimes they ask me about the Moon Hoax. I have some fun debunking it, and we talk for a while about it and the Moon missions. Every time I do, I have to remind myself of something that shocked me terribly the first time I realized it: these kids were born long after the Space Shuttle had been flying. Heck, they were born long after Hubble was launched!

When I think back to when I was a kid, NASA was the can-do agency. They went to the Moon! There's a lot of that left to go around, but still, when kids hear about NASA it's usually about something that went wrong. A Mars mission catastrophically malfunctioned, a Shuttle launch was endlessly delayed, or worse, we've lost an Orbiter.

To them, NASA isn't necessarily the inspiration it once was. But it still could be.

I want us to go back to the Moon, go to a near-Earth asteroid, explore Mars and its moons. But I want us to do it for the right reasons. Not because someone we don't like is threatening to do it first, but because it's the right thing to do.

And it is, for many of the reasons put forth by this bill. It may be naive of me, but I can hope that sometimes, when we do something as a nation it's because it's the right thing to do. We do the wrong thing for the wrong reasons all the time. Exploring space, understanding the universe around us, pushing the boundaries of what we are capable of: those are things we should be doing. For all the right reasons.



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