21 December 2003
The flop at Kitty Hawk the other day, when a reproduction of the Wright brothers' first plane swooned into a mud puddle instead of taking flight, seemed embarrassingly emblematic of America's manned space program, which is also going nowhere. Thirty-three years after the Wright brothers flew, paying customers were snoozing in berths aboard commercial airliners; 33 years after that, men walked on the Moon.
Yet today, a third of a century after NASA's lunar triumph, we're down to a fleet of three grounded space shuttles and a low-orbit space station serviced by aging Russian rockets. It's time either to get moving again - or to cash in our chips and leave human space exploration to other nations.
Talk has been that President Bush is preparing a bold new mission plan for NASA, much as John F. Kennedy did in 1961 when he committed the nation to putting a man on the Moon before the end of the decade. Some space enthusiasts are urging Mr. Bush to aim for Mars, but the long time lines involved suggest that he would wind up, as his father did, with nothing to show for it but a few NASA reports with soaring price tags attached and a nagging sense that he'd been had.
Others talk of building yet another space station, higher up - perhaps at the "L 1 point," between Earth and the Moon - but to say that you are exploring space by orbiting inside a tin can is like claiming to have explored the Atlantic because you made an ocean-liner crossing in a cabin below the waterline.
A better target would be the Moon. I know, I know: at first blush it sounds like a case of "Been there, done that." But a new lunar campaign could reinvigorate the manned space program and open up the solar system to future exploration - if we do it right. That doesn't mean another Apollo-style "flags and footprints" bash that briefly doubles the NASA budget and then shrinks it back again, leaving everyone with indelible memories and a crippling hangover.
Rather, it means establishing a permanent lunar base, where explorers can refine the technology and techniques required to colonize Mars, in cooperation with other nations and with private entrepreneurs, all without irresponsibly increasing NASA's budget or shortchanging its admirable robotic space-probe programs. That may be a tall order, but - à la the Wright brothers - the venture's success depends less on money than on dedication, ingenuity and innovation.
Contemporary thinking about Mars exploration stresses site preparation (dispatching prefabricated habitats, extra rocket fuel and emergency rescue craft before sending a crew), long terms of duty (requiring astronauts to stay for months or years, not the days or weeks that the men of Apollo spent on the Moon), and devising the technologies that will make it possible for astronauts to live off the land when they're on Mars. All these approaches can be tested and refined at a lunar base.
Preliminary studies suggest that such a base might be sited at or near the lunar south pole. The south pole, with its sun-drenched mountain peaks, is a great place to gather solar-electric power. What's more, the region's cold, dark crater floors offer near-ideal locations for astronomical telescopes, which could search for Earth-like planets circling other stars.
The lunar poles may also harbor frozen water, useful for slaking settlers' thirst and, when broken down into its constituent hydrogen and oxygen, for making rocket fuel. Since the Moon has only a sixth of the Earth's gravity, it is cheaper to send fuel down from the Moon to low Earth orbit than to bring it up from below. (Getting stuff into orbit from the Earth's surface costs a staggering $10,000 per pound.) Hence cheap rocket fuel could become the Moon's first profitable export.
Lunar mining is another promising prospect: If you want to construct, say, a space elevator attached to an orbiting resort hotel, it makes economic sense to import your heavy-metal infrastructures from the Moon.
Such space-tourism ventures may sound fanciful, but the hotel chains don't necessarily think so; they've been sending representatives to space-privatization conferences for years now.
By the middle of the century, when some 10 billion earthlings will consume 5 to 10 times today's global electricity output, Moon bases could be selling solar power. The Moon has plenty of wide, open plains where large solar panels could be deployed without inconveniencing anyone; also, it never rains or gets cloudy.
A study conducted by David Criswell of the University of Houston asserts that lunar-solar power, dispatched as tightly focused microwave beams to receiving antennas on Earth, "could provide the clean, safe, low-cost commercial electric energy needed on Earth."
Another possible energy source of the future - nuclear fusion reactors burning clean, safe helium-3 - has its own lunar connection. Helium-3, rare on Earth, is abundant on the Moon. When fusion reactors start coming on line, lunar entrepreneurs may stand to make the kind of money their predecessors raked in during the gold rush and the oil boom.
As such sugarplum visions of potential profits suggest, the long-term success of a lunar habitation will depend on the involvement of private enterprise, or what Harrison H. Schmitt, an Apollo astronaut, calls "a business-and-investor-based approach to a return to the Moon to stay." The important thing about involving entrepreneurs and oil-rig-grade roughnecks is that they can take personal and financial risks that are unacceptable, as a matter of national pride, when all the explorers are astronauts wearing national flags on their sleeves.
One reason aviation progressed so rapidly, going from the Wright brothers to supersonic jets in only 44 years, is that individuals got involved - it wasn't just governments. Charles A. Lindbergh didn't risk his neck in 1927 purely for personal gratification: he was after the $25,000 Orteig Prize, offered by Raymond Orteig, a New York hotelier, for the first nonstop flight between New York and Paris. Had Lindbergh failed, his demise, though tragic, would have been viewed as a daredevil's acknowledged jeopardy, not a national catastrophe. Settling the Moon or Mars may at times mean taking greater risks than the 2 percent fatality rate that shuttle astronauts now face.
Critics of the manned space program say that most of its scientific accomplishments could be matched, at far less cost, by robotic probes. They're mainly right about that, but science is one thing and exploration another. America was founded by explorers - not just the newcomers, but those who migrated across the Bering Strait more than 10,000 years ago. Exploration is seldom cheap or risk-free, but the hazards of staying home can be greater still.
The Ming Dynasty Chinese tried that. In the early 15th century they were the world's premier seafarers, dispatching scores of ships and thousands of explorers as far as the Persian Gulf and across the Pacific. Then, for whatever reason, they stopped and turned inward, passing laws that made it a crime even to build an oceangoing junk. I don't know anyone in China today who thinks the country's rulers did the right thing, or is inclined to repeat their mistake.
Better that we join with the modern Chinese - and the Russians, the Europeans and the Japanese; both their governments and their wild-eyed individual risk-takers - in resuming the exploratory enterprise that began in Africa a million years ago and has made humanity, for better or worse, the masters of this planet. The Moon may not be the most exciting target in the sky, but it's a broad, accessible steppingstone that just might lead to the stars.
Timothy Ferris is author, most recently, of "Seeing in the Dark: How Backyard Stargazers Are Probing Deep Space and Guarding Earth From Interplanetary Peril."