Friday, September 30, 2005

The Moon & New Orleans: Let's reconsider

A few voices are starting to be heard challenging the prevailing wisdom that the U.S. government:

a) Should spend billions sending more humans to the moon, and

b) Should completely rebuild New Orleans.

We add our small voice to that growing chorale, and we present our reasoning thusly:

In this First Post, consider the moon. NASA has unveiled a program to get back to the Moon in what it hails as "ambitious" style. Dig into the details just a little and its obvious that there is nothing new or innovative. It's Apollo with an extra passenger, upgraded computers and no clear sense of how it furthers any pragmatic space goals other than assuring the world that there is a U.S. space program.

The target date is not ambitious: 2018. That's 13 years from now. At the beginning of the space program we were able to do the "spam in a can" approach in nine years from close to a standing start. Thirteen years despite all that we have learned? Explains NASA chief Michael Griffin:
"Think of it as Apollo on steroids," Griffin said as he unveiled the agency's lunar exploration plan during a much-anticipated press conference at its Washington, D.C.-based headquarters. "Unless the U.S. wants to get out of manned spaceflight completely, this is the vehicle we need to be building."
This is not "Apollo on steroids" as NASA has boasted. This is Apollo on qualudes. Maybe Griffin, no fan of the space shuttle program (or any program, it seems, that involves human beings in control of mighty machinery), has answered the question for us. Perhaps we should rethink whether the government has any business in manned spaceflight.

Today's NASA is not your father's NASA. Gone are the days in which gung ho test pilots from the military thumbed their noses at fussy civilian administrators and got the job done. NASA has been subjected by the weight and inertia of its own bureaucratic growth, and by both its successes and failures. At NASA's snail pace -- brought about by multi-layered bureaucracy and a culture of indecisiveness borne of fear of accountability -- will never get us there. Add NASA's inability to get past the politics of its funding, and you have a ready-made disaster in the wings. It will take but one more fatal accident to sap what is left of the old can-do spirit.

But why should the taxpayers continue to provide billions of dollars to a risk-averse, foot dragging monolith? Private companies are starting to compete with innovative ideas to get space vehicles into and out of orbit faster and cheaper without compromising safety. If space is to ever become a real frontier for exploration, it will not happen with the government acting as gate-keeper.

With every new detail learned from Mars it appears that there are increasingly good reasons for sending human beings there. They must be men and women of stout hearts and quick minds, schooled in science, technology and cross-trained in survival skills. Not dare-devils per se, but individuals who relish taking risks and overcoming obstacles. People who can think on their feet. People of faith and hope.

You still find those people in the military, and in the private sector, but you will find few of them at NASA. Perhaps the Congress should offer incentive grants to private companies to develop space vehicles and new technologies that will take us farther, faster, safer and less costly, much like in the 19th Century when settlers were encouraged to go west for 40 acres and a mule. The feds didn't tell the settlers to wait until the Great Plains and mountains were safe from bears, bad weather and indigenous native warriors. The pioneers did not have to wait while Uncle Sam developed a perfect vehicle to get settlers across the Oregon Trail.

If the people had been forced to wait on Uncle Sam like we wait upon NASA today, nothing west of St. Louis would be occupied today, except for California. Maybe.

Bottom line: let's pull the plug on NASA and establish incentive grants to private companies. By 2018 we'd not only be back on the moon, we'd have factories mining minerals, and power companies beaming down to Earth microwaved solar energy from huge mirrored collectors built, not on Earth, but of lunar materials. By 2018 there would already be regular space traffic between the Earth, Moon and Mars using accelerants extracted from the moon itself.

Next Post: Let's Rethink New Orleans


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