Thursday, December 20, 2007

To The Moon, Alice (And Everyone Else)!

So what's up with everyone wanting to go to the moon again? Why did it take thirty years for nations to suddenly perk up their collective ears and decide to go back? Is it just a question of technology catching up with the will to go? Honestly, I'm confused.

On Christmas Eve you will be able to walk outside in that nippy cold air and see above you a brilliantly-lit full moon. It will be riding at its highest point between now and 2023, making it gorgeous to view (not far away in the sky you'll see Mars, at its closest point to Earth for the next nine years). When you see the cratered surface of that great rock in the sky, I urge you to put aside your concern about frostbite on your fingers and ponder the value of going back to the moon. How much is it worth to us to return? And what are the implications of our friendly and not-so-friendly allied nations returning there with us (or without us)?

Recently China orbited the moon with its Chang'e-1 lunar probe. It has returned its first image of the lunar surface, but already there are allegations that the image is a re-touched photo taken by NASA in 2005. Go figure. And as for sending men back to the moon, China may actually beat us there, aided by the European Space Agency. It'll be close.

Surely you are well aware of the United States' plans to go to the moon again, and then mars (I posted on this topic about a year ago). I considered it a diversion from more serious issues, and still do, but we can't let other countries one-up us, now can we, and give up our dominance of space? NASA's contractor, Pratt and Whitney Rocketdyne Inc., is this month beginning the testing phase of the old Saturn rocket J-2 engines in preparation for final design work for the new J-2X engines that will power the ARES rockets. We've sent lunar probes in the meantime, though, including the Clementine and Lunar Prospector missions.

But are you aware of the other countries with their eyes on the moon? If you don’t follow space news, you may not have heard it all. Japan, for instance, just put its Kaguya SELENE-1 probe in orbit around the moon, and there has been talk of setting up a lunar base, perhaps by 2030. India, too, will be launching a lunar orbiter, Chandrayaan-1 (Indian government video), next year, and has just installed tracking antennae for the mission. Russia, too, has revived it's long-dormant plans to put cosmonauts on the moon.

The question remains: assuming any of these nations are serious about returning humanity to the moon, will it be another space race, or a joint international endeavor?

Personally, I don't have a lot of faith in government programs to take us to the moon. It takes too much political capital to keep up that kind of funding. I don't doubt that some nations may succeed in getting to the moon and even setting up a small base, but I doubt they could maintain it for long. It'll be another Apollo, basically – heroic, but short-lived and poorly justified.

Rather, I have more faith in private enterprise. The Ansari X-Prize showed us that, with a little financial encouragement, a private company could launch a manned spacecraft (Spacecraftone) into orbit without the assistance or overbearing bureaucracy of government entities like NASA. Now, as you may have heard, Google has joined with the X-Prize Foundation to sponsor a new competition, the Google Lunar X-Prize, for private ventures to successfully land a rover on the moon, roving at least 500 meters, and returning images. It's worth $30 million to the winner. Additional millions can be won if they rove further, take images of Apollo hardware, discover water ice, or survive the lunar night (about 14.5 Earth days). This month the first entry for the X-Prize was announced. Odyssey Moon, based in the Isle of Man, the tiny crown-dependency of England (which has structured its tax laws to attract space exploration businesses), was the first private organization to pay the $10K registration fee. Odyssey Moon has hired Canadian technology firm MDA as its prime contractor on the project.

Said Ramin Khadem, chairman of Odyssey Moon, "Explorers of the 15th and 16th centuries who set out to find new worlds were probably asked why they were doing it," Khadem said. "Look at the riches and wonders they discovered." He added, "We are out to complement, not compete with, China, Russia and the US."
I wish them luck, as well as the other entrants. I wonder, though, how far it will go. My hope is that private enterprise will find a good balance with national enterprises. As with any other program, only the proper balance (where private enterprise has the greater share of freedom) will, in my view, lead to a successful and lasting venture. Thinking back to the last great phase of mankind's exploration, one can call up examples of the Hudson Bay Company or the Dutch East India Company, where such private entities were able to profit while furthering the needs and rewards of their representative nations.

Only time will tell if any of these folks are serious, or if they're just lunatics. In any case, enjoy the full moon on Christmas Eve. There's a decent chance that when it rides that high again, brave men and women will be living there.

Update (12/26/07): Today Japan’s Kaguya lunar orbiter went into full operation:

Image taken from HERE.


Mac said...

Thanks for linking to my image. :)It helps boost my gimpy deposit of google juice. You write amazingly well. It is interesting to compare the large corporations that drove greedy explorers to the new world with what might be driving world governments back to the moon today. I wonder how the costs compare. I bet it is still really difficult to imagine making money from a moon base with space travel so expensive. By the time we plant looneys on the moon permanently and normal people get to visit, I will be a dead man. For now I will have to stick with my heinlein.

Angry Lab Rat said...

Thanks for you comments, Mac! It would, indeed, be interesting to see what those companies spent back then, corrected to modern dollar amounts.

By the way, cool art.

Sparkling Red said...

The world's governments can't even agree on who's responsible for Antarctica (who is going to do the cleanup if there's an oil spill in the region, for example). Maybe they should get that figured out before we start fighting over the moon.

Bix said...

Thank you for the heads-up on the Christmas Eve moon!

I remember that sense of pride in 1969. I think it would be great for India, China, Japan, and other nations to feel that. I can understand the sense of competition, but I think there's also an opportunity for something positive - for international cooperation - to go on here. It's an opportunity.