We must choose to go to the moon, again

Daniel Michon | Op-Ed Submission

In recent days, the proposed budget for the U.S. government has begun to undergo public scrutiny, with many parts drawing notice from all corners of the nation. Amongst the proposed changes lies the fate of NASA’s Constellation Program, as funding for the project will be cut off in 2011. This willful destruction of America’s manned spaceflight heritage is inexplicable and should not be overlooked. The United States has served as a leader in spaceflight capabilities for over five decades, and as President Kennedy said in 1962, “this country…was not built by those who waited and rested and wished to look behind them. This country was conquered by those who moved forward.” As such, the necessity for the United States to continue to develop its manned spaceflight abilities and move forward into this new decade is now painfully obvious, as the unknown beckons us.

The proposed budget not only cuts funding to the Moon project, but to the Constellation Program as a whole, which includes development of the Ares V rocket, the successor to Apollo’s Saturn V rocket. Essentially, a cut in funding for this project stops all development of the United States’ manned space travel capabilities and fundamentally halts all progress toward an eventual Mars landing. This setback will place the United States at a disadvantage in an era where more and more countries begin to explore manned space flight as an option. China conducted its first spacewalk in August of 2008 and has announced plans to land a man on the moon by 2024. Last week, the Indian Space Research Organization formally submitted a request for government funding for a manned moon space flight in 2016.

Many other countries, including Iran, North Korea, Japan, Malaysia, Romania, Turkey and the European Union, have expressed interest in conducting manned space flight missions in the future, as the space around the earth grows progressively more cluttered. In an ever-evolving and globalized world, the toll that the United States will suffer from falling behind in manned spaceflight capabilities (not to mention the country’s need to now rely on other space agencies to travel beyond the atmosphere) could prove disastrous.

Should the U.S. try to return astronoauts to the moon?

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Perhaps the most compelling argument to be made, however, is nothing more than its appeal to our human nature. Since the days of antiquity, man has searched beyond his borders, exploring strange new worlds and making bold new discoveries. The days of Apollo only continued this tradition, as we left the mortal confines of our planet and saw firsthand what our universe had to offer. Now, when the opportunity arises to touch the cusp of the heavens once more and reach beyond to other planets, we willingly hold back and focus instead on unmanned probes. These lifeless robots fail to capture the public’s imagination; they come and go and the world moves on. They’re excellent at collecting raw data, but lack the human spark that engrossed the nation throughout the early days of NASA.

As interest wanes, support for science will fall until space becomes the domain of commercial pursuits. When that happens, what rules will apply? The public support and massive funds necessary to go back to the moon will no longer be there, and travel beyond our planet will no longer be possible.

Manned spaceflight is a continuation of the human dream of exploration, the inquisitiveness that is inside all of us. Now the opportunity presents itself for us to live out this dream, to not only discover what lies beyond our home, but to see it with human eyes and to feel it with human hands. We choose to suppress our own nature and send robots instead. The public will support new endeavors; it is up to our leaders to follow suit.

In September of 1962, President John F. Kennedy spoke about the nation’s space efforts at Rice University in Houston, Texas. Midway through his speech, he commented on why he chose to undertake such an enormous task whilst the country’s space program had lately been struggling.

“We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone and one which we intend to win.”

Daniel is a freshman in Arts & Sciences. He can be reached via e-mail at michond@wustl.edu.

  • As someone who also follows space missions routinely, I agree with the decision to cut funding for the Constellation Program. It was an arrogant proposal to reboot Apollo missions with (only mildly) updated technology, and in particular a proposal which flagrantly ignored a cheaper alternative devised by NASA’s own engineers (look up the Direct Launcher). Perhaps now there will be sufficient incentive to get the space elevator working.

  • David Russell

    Responding to Shawn Glendon. America’s GDP is on the order of 14 trillion per year. To fund this space program would cost less than one tenth of one percent of the federal budget, which is within the yearly budget of NASA, but not by much. To reduce spending and get this program, as well as universal health care going, would take a massive budget overhaul, but it’s totally feasible. There’s quite a bit of pork in the budget. Universal health care also costs way more than a space program like this. When NASA totes a multi-billion dollar price tag, we don’t pay it all in one year, but over more than 10. The price tag on health care gets paid every year. Americans spend more money on chap stick than the US space program.

  • Thanks, Daniel, for a very timely article. I posted a link to your article on the Space Movement Facebook Group and Fan Page, and I exhorted all the members to read your article, take the poll, and comment upon your article. Please consider joining. Let the dialogue continue, here on the Student Life discussion board, on Facebook, and everywhere.

    Space Movement Facebook Group: http://www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=46571899491&ref=mf

    Space Movement Facebook Fan Page: http://www.facebook.com/pages/The-Space-Movement/59891197882?ref=mf

    I know you feel strongly about this, and I think I know why. I think I understand. You can count on me for support, especially if you want to do something about this. Do you have a petition for us to sign? Please remember, one person CAN make a difference.

  • PS. to my note immediately above: one good reason to keep the Ares V in the short run is to continue work on a redesigned lunar lander, the Altair, for our INTERNATIONAL moon base The cargo version should be redesigned to carry other nation’s cargo and other nation’s lunar base modules. This is a legitimate role for NASA. Let’s not lose our leadership role.

    I think I will combine all these notes into a blog and a Facebook Note and tag it to NASA and Obama. Why don’t we all do this? WE the taxpayers are funding this, in America and all over the world.

    By the way, I am rooting for India to be second to the moon. Go ISRO!

  • For the record, I do NOT favor scrapping the Ares V (because it is based on legacy Apollo and Shuttle technology, which ought to be preserved), but I do think Space X or Orbital or some other company ought to build an even bigger and better heavy lift booster, simultaneously. If successful, NASA would be free to do what it does best, space exploration and technology development. Cargo carrying and passenger service ought to be transferred to private companies, when this is feasible.

    Let’s bring back Pan Am! Let them honor all those Pan Am tickets to the moon! I wish I had one.

  • “Even if we could afford to land men on the Moon, our astrobiologists would not be very happy. Kind of hand to detect any residual native microorganisms when landers are spewing earth bacteria into the atmosphere every time that the airlock opens!”

    The moon actually does have an atmosphere, a very very thin one of dust, but contaminating it with terrestrial microorganisms is not really such an issue, even though our microbes survived on the Surveyor Lander camera brought back to earth by the Apollo 12 astronauts. There is no reason to believe the Moon has ever had an ecosystem of its own, or that our microbes could ever flourish there, though they may survive for a time in dormancy.

    Mars, on the other hand, may have residual microorganisms. Methane has been detected in the atmosphere, meaning that the planet is either geologically or biologically alive, or both, though just barely. Even if only the tiniest native Martian microbes still survive, I say, Mars for the Martians! Hands off! No Kim Stanley Robinson style terraforming, please!

  • Concerning scrapping the Ares V, that may not be such a bad idea after all, if Space X or some other company with a Commercial Orbital Transportation System contract can provide an even better heavy lift vehicle. Scrapping the entire Constellation Program may not be so bad, if with the money saved we can buy a worthy successor to the Space Shuttle: a real scramjet space transport, like the Pan Am Space Clipper in the film 2001: A Space Odyssey, that so many of my generation, left and right, still dream about. Let me have a window seat!

    Concerning a new space race with India and China, I have this to say. When I was living in Ahmedabad, Gujarat, India, I used to ride in an auto-rickshaw past a huge building with a mural depicting an Indian astronaut on the moon, wearing an Apollo moonsuit with an Indian flag patch on his/her shoulder, standing in front of an Apollo lunar module, planting an Indian flag on the moon while a Soyuz command module orbits overhead. When I tell my American students about this, their first expression is “Outsourcing!!!” I have to explain the Cold War to them, as I always do. Indira Gandhi played the USA against the Soviet Union, and I guess one desired outcome was an Indian lunar mission using both nation’s technology. Too bad it did not happen. I think if the Soviets had continued their manned lunar program, instead of dropping out and pretending they were never a contender, they would still be on the moon, and so would we, and we would have a joint lunar base, instead of, or in addition to, the ISS.

    What is so terrible about ISRO and the Chinese space agency planning to go to the moon? Why don’t we be gracious and beg a ride? Let them be second and third on the moon, and then invite them to our International Lunar Base, while we and our Russian friends plan our trip to Jupiter and the stars. Why not?

    Here is what that British socialist singer-songwriter and would be astronaut Billy Bragg has to say. He speaks for me and many of my generation, who lost our way and never made it to the moon or Mars. Why don’t you go in our place, and tell us about it? You can have the window seat.

    When I was young I told my mom
    We’ll walk on the moon someday
    Armstrong and Aldrin spoke to me
    From Houston and Cape Kennedy

    And I watched the Eagle landing
    On a night when the moon was full
    And as it tugged at the tides
    I knew that deep inside
    I too could feel its pull

    I lie in my bed and dreamed I walked
    The sea of tranquility
    I knew that someday soon we’d all sail to the moon
    On the high tide of technology
    But the dreams had all been taken
    And the window seat’s taken too
    And 2001 and has almost come and gone
    What am I supposed to do

    Now that the space race is over
    It’s been and it’s gone
    And I’ll never get to the moon
    Now that the space race is over
    And I can’t help but feel
    That we’ve all grown up too soon……

  • If we can’s afford the Moon, how can we afford Mars, let alone Saturn?

    Even if we could afford to land men on the Moon, our astrobiologists would not be very happy. Kind of hand to detect any residual native microorganisms when landers are spewing earth bacteria into the atmosphere every time that the airlock opens!

    The Moon makes sense and is practical for now. Mars is on the distant horizon, and before we can get there we need heavy lift hardware (Ares V) to get it off the ground.

  • Dan Michon

    Thanks for reading the article. Due to space restrictions, I had to cut out some pieces of the article that contained important information about the issue at hand. The following two paragraphs come after the opening:

    The venture of manned spaceflight is unlike any other endeavor on earth, as the stresses and difficulties to overcome are literally “not-of-this-world.” As such, the very nature of the project lends to the necessity of developing bleeding-edge technology in order to maintain the safety of the astronauts amongst other things. The communications technology revolution of the latter half of the Twentieth Century comes as a direct result from the research NASA conducted in developing its space flight capabilities, as well as everyday technology from smoke detectors to ‘space-age’ materials. Further advancements are not only essential to this enterprise, but come as a direct result.

    It has been estimated that at the height of the Soviet-American space race, the total number of employees (NASA and otherwise) working towards achieving Kennedy’s goal was approximately 340,000, or roughly the number of people estimated to have built the Great Pyramids at Giza. The undertaking of such an enormous goal nearly single-handedly created the aerospace industry, a sector which continues to grow to this day. The cancellation of NASA’s program will lead to massive layoffs at a time when creating and saving jobs should be the utmost concern for government officials. However, an increase of support for the program will lead to an increase in industry jobs (both government and private), which are not unskilled labor positions but sustainable, middle class positions that require college degrees and hold a reasonable amount of job security in the immediate future.

  • I have been fairly active with a local group called the Peace Economy Project (I participated in their faculty discussion group this summer, and I do some volunteer PR or them). The main goal of this group is to promote economic conversion, from war technology to peace technology, for a peace economy. This means keeping local defense jobs here in St Louis, but converting weapons factories to make solar panels, etc., or civilian aircraft. Or spacecraft, for an international trip to Mars, to give our air force colonels something better to do than plan the next preemptive war. There is an upside and a downside to everything. The Cold War produced many civilian dividends, including aerospace technology, and I think it would be a shame to lose those capabilities.

    Someone said of the Soviets, “Space is their religion.” If it is, let’s worship together, in peace. Even the North Koreans may join us eventually, and the iranians too. This could happen, if we make it happen.

    One of my favorite singer-songwriters, the British socialist Billy Bragg, wrote a song called “The Space Race is Over,” all about his nostalgia for the Cold War space race. It turns out that Neil Armstrong is one of his heroes, and 2001: A Space Odyssey is one of his favorite movies. Space exploration is neither left nor right. It is not even a guy thing, or a white male thing, anymore. If you watch NASA-TV, especially the educational shows for children, designed to inspire the next generation of astronauts and engineers, women and minorities are well represented. They seem to be making a special effort to be as inclusive as possible.

    As so many people have said before, the money is spent on earth, and the jobs are mostly here on earth, at this time. Many of these jobs could be kept right here in St Louis.

  • Shawn Glendon

    OK… beyond appealing to my “human nature” to explore the universe, what tangible benefits come from continuing manned spaceflight? Why should my tax dollars be spent on sending a astronaut to the moon or Mars instead of providing millions of middle-class, hard working Americans affordable healthcare?

  • PPS. Let’s put a propulsion unit on the ISS and boost it into a more useful orbit, so that it can be used as a way station for more interesting places than low earth orbit. I believe an ion propulsion unit was part of the original design? Let’s bring that back. Let’s revive the “Euro-Soyuz” plan, to soup up the venerable Soviet/Russian workhorse with European Space Agency help, to make it high earth orbit and lunar capable, to help us sustain our moon base, just as the Soyuz sustained our ISS when our shuttles were grounded.

    I don’t see any plans for a vehicle for manned missions to service satellites in geosynchronous orbit or L5. Why not? Going to the stars or Callisto to search for extraterrestrial life may be visionary, but going to geosynchronous orbit or L5 is practical. So might visiting earth crossing asteroids and mining the asteroid belt.

    Why not?

  • PS. We sure aren’t going to Callisto in a souped up Apollo, either. That is the only Jovian moon upon which we could set up a base, because it is outside the lethal radiation belt (Ganymede is just on the margin). Callisto could be used as a base to direct robotic exploration of the most interesting place in the Solar System: Europa. With current technology, manned exploration of the Jovian System is not feasible. That is another reason why we need new technology.

    If Obama has any of this in mind, he ought to come out and say so. I expect his version of Kennedy’s famous “we choose to go to the moon, and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard” sometime soon. We’ve been to the moon, now let’s do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.

    How about interstellar travel?

  • i strongly agree with the main point of this article. I am a lifelong space buff and I watch NASA-TV day and night. (As I write, I am watching the installation of the Tranquility Module on the International Space Station). When the terrestrial news becomes too distressing, I find it inspiring to watch Russian and American air force colonels cooking dinner and fixing the toilet together, in a perfect cooperative society. Space law is in its infancy, because there has been no war or crime on the International Space Station. Does American law apply to the American section, Japanese law to the Japanese module, etc.? We do not know, because this has not been an issue so far. We must be in heaven, or utopia!

    i agree that scrapping the Ares V is a huge mistake, as was scrapping the Saturn V. We need a heavy lift launch vehicle. However, NASA’s plan to deorbit the ISS into the Pacific Ocean only a few years after its completion, effectively breaking up the international partnership we have worked so hard to build, and going alone to the moon, would have been an even bigger mistake. Manned space flight has always been political. We have bragging rights to a Cold War victory, having won the race to the moon. Nobody can take that away from us. Instead of reigniting a new Cold War in space, we should invite the Indians and Chinese to the ISS project, and then to an international moon base project, and then on to Mars. That is why we need the Ares V, to share with our partners. That is why we need to work on scramjet technology, to reduce the cost of space travel. That is why the COTS (Commercial Orbital Transportation System) project is so important. Space X’s manned Dragon spacecraft seems to be on schedule. This could be enhanced to replace the Orion space capsule, really just a souped up Apollo.

    We could go back to the moon in a souped up Apollo, but not to Mars. NASA’s manned Mars plans seem vague and ill conceived. If it takes six months to get there, we need to send a space station, a perfected and more capable ISS. With more advanced propulsion technology, we could cut the travel time in half. We could reduce cost and efficiency by scrapping our current “unsustainable” plan and adopting the Mars Direct plan, to manufacture rocket fuel for the return flight from the Marian atmosphere, and have the return vehicles, and a functional Mars Base, ready before any humans set foot on Mars.

    The Obama Administration’s vague references to making space flight more “sustainable” may indicate not a lack of commitment to manned space flight, but a change of strategy. In any case, the details will be worked out between Congress and the Administration. I am glad NASA’s bluff, their threat to destroy the ISS, has been called. The counterproposal, defunding the entire Constellation Program, may be only the Administration’s initial bargaining position. Time will tell, and the voice of the taxpayers must be heard. So let’s listen.

    I look forward to reading more about this in Student Life.