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Making the Case for Space

When you think about it, so much of science involves putting our instruments into the right place at the right time. The transit of Venus across the Sun in 1769 was an opportunity to use triangulation from opposite sides of the Earth to calculate the distance to the Sun more accurately. That effort took James Cook to Tahiti, and though the experiment failed, it remains an inspiring example of the human intellect trying to solve questions by exploration, determination and hard work.

We saw yesterday that if we put instruments into much further places, we may be able to identify oceanic worlds and perhaps map their continents. Peter McCullough (Space Telescope Science Institute) wrote the most recent paper on this concept and presented it at a conference on missions that could be enabled by a return to the Moon. But the Moon itself may not be the best venue for the instruments in question, as McCullough noted in an e-mail after reading yesterday’s entry:

“I might comment (in anticipation of your coverage of the speculative digressions in that same paper) that the polarization-measuring telescope probably would be best as a free-flyer (e.g. at L2 like JWST) instead of on the lunar surface, although the infrastructure to get payloads to the moon will be very helpful for getting large telescopes to L2, which I think was a common theme of the conference held here at STScI…”

So we’re looking at a mission that is enabled by the infrastructure that will boost large payloads to the Moon and other destinations, but which will itself be best placed in a ‘halo’ orbit around the L2 Lagrange point, approximately 1.5 million kilometers from Earth. That’s outside the Moon’s orbit, but it’s clear that tuning up the technologies for lunar missions will make operating at L2 that much easier. The James Webb Space Telescope, as McCullough notes, is already slated for L2.

But even a project as ambitious as tracing the outline of continents on distant exoplanets pales in comparison to the deeper motivations for building up our space infrastructure. Can a lunar base help solve some of Earth’s deepest problems? One possibility is that it could lead by example. A sustainable presence on another world won’t power itself with fossil fuels. It will rely on nuclear and solar power and doubtless develop countless new insights into conservation. All of this returns to Earth in the form of practical technology to preserve our ecosystem.

A lunar colony offers all the benefits of learning to live off the land. The harsh environment forces the issue in ways that can pay off for the home planet. Let me quote McCullough again on this point because I think he has it exactly right:

…solar power is readily and abundantly available on the lunar surface, and a large, slow flywheel utilizing compacted regolith for mass could provide for the variable power demands of human habitation and/or store power through the lunar night away from the poles. An alternative approach would be to bring from Earth a high-speed, precision flywheel of relatively small mass or a chemical battery, but those are antithetical to the strategic benefit of utilizing lunar resources. From the opposite perspective, utilizing any water ice mined from lunar craters, for human consumption and/or rocket fuel, could be myopic exploitation and destruction of an important scientific resource.

Those of us who find ourselves in front of audiences trying to justify space exploration would do well to review McCullough’s arguments with care. Here’s another, which speaks to the objection that the money we spend on space could better be applied to solving problems here on Earth. Weigh NASA and its expenses against what goes on on Wall Street. The pharmaceutical company Pfizer had a 2005 annual revenue of $51 billion, spending some $7 billion on research and development.

By contrast, NASA’s 2005 budget as allocated by Congress was $16 billion. In other words, the NASA budget that year was less than one-third the annual revenue of a single company of the thirty that make up the Dow Jones Industrial Average. Nobody is saying that Pfizer isn’t huge, or that $16 billion is a small amount of money. But the idea that diverting NASA’s budget will solve global warming or shelter the world’s homeless is a fantasy. Whereas exploration properly conducted may provide benefits far outreaching what might be accomplished by keeping those dollars here on Earth.

McCullough quotes Freeman Dyson on the nature of exploration, a passage he draws from George Dyson’s wonderful Project Orion: The True Story of the Atomic Spaceship:

We shall know what we go to Mars for, only after we get there…. You might as well ask Columbus why he wasted his time discovering America when he could have been improving the methods of Spanish sheep-farming. It is lucky that the U.S. Government like Queen Isabella is willing to pay for the ships.

Of course, paying for the ships is always problematic, and remains so today given the eternally fluctuating budgetary situation. It may be that getting us back to the Moon and continuing our work on a space-based infrastructure will take prompting from China’s determination to do the same — competition is always a sure driver, as it was during the Apollo days. Whatever the trigger, though, the benefits of space exploration are tangible if all too rarely part of current discourse. Consider McCullough’s paper a short primer marshaling many of the needed arguments.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Eric James March 17, 2007, 0:06

    I read in the paper today that the ice at Mars’ south pole contains enough water to cover the planet in an ocean 36 feet deep. It’s more than two miles thick in places and is nearly pure water. The northern ice sheet is more than a mile thick.

  • Adam March 17, 2007, 4:39

    Hi Paul

    Good example about how the development of technology for space helps us back here on Earth – astronauts using recycled water was a story in this week’s “New Scientist”, and a very pertinent technology here in Australia as our various State governments argue over the need to reuse sewage. Developing solar and nuclear technologies in space has the imperative of compactness and durability, something that would serve both technologies back here on Earth.

    I’d like to see more effort on closed-cycle biosystems – the need to balance inputs and outputs and avoid the build-up of impurities is something that will be increasingly needed here on Earth, as well as in space.

  • Michael Spencer March 17, 2007, 7:34

    You have a nice sense of writing rhythm, an essential characteristic for science writing. I noticed a small stylistic thing this morning:

    …homeless is a fantasy. Whereas exploration…

    Style manuals don’t allow “whereas” introducing a new sentence. It’s a subordinate clause and belongs in the previous sentence.

    Thanks for your regular reporting and most of all for finding topics that are uniformally interesting. I know it’s tough to keep these things going!


  • Administrator March 17, 2007, 8:32

    Thanks for the kind words, Michael, much appreciated. Re ‘whereas,’ I’m sure you’re right about my misuse of the subordinate, a goof to be sure.

  • ljk March 24, 2007, 20:29

    Weekly e-Letter from Science News

    March 24, 2007

    This Week’s Featured Articles:


    Ticket to Ride? Astrophysicists mull a return to the moon

    Astronomers are investigating how they might jump on NASA’s lunar bandwagon,
    using the moon or its environs to study distant stars and galaxies.


    [Earth Science]

    Young and Restless: Ancient Earth shows moving crust

    The oldest rocks in the world show that Earth’s shifting crust began its
    tectonic movements almost 4 billion years ago.