Friday, January 09, 2004

Return to the Moon & Mars

The New York Times, AP, and My Way all have stories about a Bush announcement next week which is expected to draw plans for a return to the moon with the eventual goal of going to Mars. Also check out Slashdot; my last count had somewhere over 1000 comments on this story.

This wouldn't be like the last moon landing. It would be deliberate, not a race. It would be to establish a permanent base, not a honeymoon vacation (I couldn't help the pun). It would be looking towards a bigger goal: inner Solar System exploration. This would be totally different than the "what now?" attitude which I think helped kill the Apollo program.

I am 100% for this effort. It needs to be done. The very fate of the human race depends on leaving this planet and eventually this solar system. The potential for mining of resources in space is absolutely essential to maintain growth in the coming centuries. Finding evidence of past or present alien life in places like Mars or Europa would send shockwaves throughout our society and culture.

I could go on, but the minimum motivation must be established. I woke up to talk radio the other day saying the money spent on the current mars rover would be better spent on some domestic initiatives. He called mars a desert not worth our attention. I would imagine 10, 100, or 1000 years from now when earth is faced with some inevitable global crisis which threatens all mankind, some might look back to opinions like those held by this particular talk-radio-host, and think, "it would be better for humanity of people like that never existed".

That said, a few things need to be addressed on how this should be done.

1) The NASA bureaucracy much be eliminated. The only way to make any of this cost-effective is to have the bare-bones operation. Things like their educational program are ok, and pay off in the end with more talented engineers. Things like their insistence to not ditch the shuttle are evidence of a command which moves like molasses.

2) Ditch the shuttle. The program never worked as it should, making weekly or monthly trips. It perpetually costs more and more. Currently a single flight costs around $1,000,000,000. That's plenty of zeros.

3) Fund those private entrepreneurs working on things like the X-Prize. Subsidizing 1000 private agencies with $1,000,000 each and saying "what is the cheapest and best way to get to mars and establish a base on the moon?" would be a much more useful effort than any single shuttle launch.

4) Solving some essential problems with long term space flight would be useful. Materials to block radiation on board, a system to cycle water & air, fusion, and other technologies are all helpful.

5) Place a high value on having a robot do anything that you don’t really need a human to do. I don’t think you need humans to construct a moon base. Tele-operation is all that is really needed. Making a good humanoid torso would be essential. A human on earth could tele-operate this whether it is in space or on the moon with a wheeled base. Tele-operation makes no sense on mars because of the light-speed time lag. More autonomous construction vehicles should be made. A ship on the way to mars could go much faster if most of the supplies where already on mars waiting for the crew.

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