Monday, July 20, 2009

Apollo's Legacy 40 Years Later

40 years ago today, two astronauts from a small, liquid water-rich planet called Earth made their first steps into the new frontier, landing on that planet's only natural satellite. These first steps were seen by people around the world, and people from around the world looked on with pride, regardless of nationality, creed, or race.

Today, humanity still explores space, but it has been 37 years since we last traveled beyond low-Earth orbit and gone to another world. We have ceded the role of explorer to our robots. This is not to say that this entirely bad. People from around the world still marvel in awe at the images returned from the Mars rovers, still going strong well past their warranty with the only thing keeping them back is the occasional tall dune or patch of soft soil, the Cassini spacecraft, orbiting Saturn and returning incredible photos and data about that world and its many moons, or the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, which returned incredible photos of the hardware the Apollo astronauts left behind on the Moon just last week. While it has been a great privilege to get a chance to work on the data that these robot explorers send back, I still feel that humanity has retreated in its quest for space.

There has always been a conflict, budget-wise, between manned and unmanned exploration of space, competing for money in the narrow budgets of the various national or European space agencies and flame wars on web forums dedicated to space exploration. The topic is often so toxic that it is even banned from one of the forums I moderate, I feel that one can't necessarily live without the other. Without a healthy manned spaceflight program, the pressure to fund a healthy unnamed one will be lower for the powers that be. We are already seeing budgets that are getting tighter for the space science division at NASA, creating potential funding problem for projects like the Europa/Jupiter System Mission. Manned spaceflight gives unmanned missions an additional purpose, to scout and map places in the solar system that we may send people to in the next few generations, or to explore places that humans will probably never visit in person (like Venus). They can provide additional infrastructure for manned mission, such as acting as communication relays. In the end, I feel that without a healthy manned spaceflight program, we can kiss the current unmanned program goodbye, ceding such a program to the Europeans or the Chinese. While we may still fund an unmanned program, it would look much more like the European one. Such a program would only allow for limited funding for outer solar system missions.

We should go back to the Moon. We should go to Mars with people. Given how much and how often Mars Sample Return has been delayed, we might as well go with a manned mission at this rate. Most critically, we must NOT treat landing on these worlds as the goal. That was the #1 mistake of the Apollo program. By treating the landing as the goal, everything else, like science, additional landings, (semi-)permanent settlement, seemed pointless and a waste of money. Why continue to send people if the goal was just to land there, take pictures, and go home. The Moon is not Disneyland. It isn't Mount Rushmore. The Moon and the Solar System in general is more like the Old West. Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were more akin to 20th Century versions of Lewis and Clark. They didn't cross a finish line; they opened up a frontier. But because landing was seen as THE goal, the way to beat the Russians, we lost that frontier. If we want it back, we need to start trotting out phrases like "Manifest Destiny" and stop think that we are going to spend a bunch of money to send people to the solar system equivalent of taking pictures with Mickey. It worked in the mid-19th Century for the United States, maybe it will work again for the world.

Kim Stanley Robinson, author of "Red Mars," "Blue Mars," and "Green Mars," has a great editorial in yesterday's Washington Post about how one good reason for permanent settlement on Mars and beyond is to reduce the environmental strain of the human population on the resources of Earth, and he has a good point. He also states that space exploration could be helpful driver for discovering solutions to climate change. Personally, I am pretty sure that Earth's environmental state will be the driving force behind colonization, though not as Robinson envisions, colonizing only "if Earth is healthy." As environmental regulations for extracting energy and other resources on Earth become more draconian, doing so on lifeless worlds like our Moon, Mars, the various rocks of the asteroid belt, and Io would become more profitable and/or necessary.

Finishing this post, I thought I would ask a question for all of you readers out there, given that it has been 40 years since humans first landed on our moon, when do you think humans will first land on Io? See I have to bring this post back on topic ;-) I am definitely interested in hear all of your responses. Just post a comment to this post!


  1. Really? Nobody has ventured to make a prediction yet?? Ok, I'll take a stab at it. As tempting as "never" seems, given the distance and harsh environment, I will instead say April 17, 2136. And even that seems a bit optimistic to me.

  2. Thanks for the post. Personally I feel "never" is a bit...pessimistic. If we have the technology to send people to the moons of Jupiter, land, and setup permanent settlements, then the "small" issue of Io's radiation environment (and other environmental concerns) should be resolvable. It should actually be easier to have settlements on the surface than orbiting Io, since the radiation exposure on the surface (except the poles, and keeping in mind the gradient between the trailing and leading points) would be much lower.

    As far as 2136 goes, not a bad guess I think.

  3. Hey, once we unlock practical fusion (I sure hope Polywell pans out), the solar system is ours.

    Landing on Io? I'll go out on a limb and not be my usual pessimistic self and say... 2073. But that enabling breakthrough better come soon!

  4. Also leaning towards never, because there are so many good reasons not to land on Io.

    But someone will. Because it is there. It will be knocked off like every unclimable peak has been bagged, and visited for no particular reason like the Challenger Deep was visited. And then no one may find a good reason to go back...