by Madhu Thangavelu
Los Angeles CA (SPX) May 22, 2015
New technologies allow us to go back to the Moon at a fraction the cost of Apollo, and now, even private efforts like the Google X Prize contestants are underway to land and execute exploration missions there. There is even a private venture to establish a lunar observatory called the International Lunar Observatory Association(ILOA). NASA has not turned a blind eye to these activities. The Pacific International Space Center for Exploration Systems(PISCES) and their International Lunar Research Park initiative have been executing some groundbreaking simulations here on Earth, and NASA is looking at ways to integrate all these activities under a synergetic program umbrella at the Space Portal, a program developed at NASA Ames Research Center to facilitate such innovation and commercial interaction.
Now that NASA's Orion spacecraft is nearing commission and the large Space Launch System is nearly built, all eyes will be on building a lander that can service extraterrestrial surfaces. Rather than build it from scratch, NASA might do well to look at the effort well under way at Spacex and at Blue Origin, that has proven it can do wonders with small business budgets and is about to land and reuse the first stage of its Falcon and New Shepard launchers. This technology lays the foundation for both lunar and Mars landers and can greatly speed up development.
Though scientific thought and religious enquiry seem to be at odds today in a world that seeks secular governance, humanity is still deeply rooted in spirituality and religions continue to offer great organizing frameworks for modern societies. All great civilizations were founded and organized upon great religions and all cherished institutions of intellectual enquiry and education have places of worship in them. While two generations of engineers have been piling study upon study of how to build labs and accelerators and telescopes and other observatories on the Moon, thought leaders among civil architects and designers have been drawing plans for what they think we should do on the Moon for all humanity.
They propose time capsules, repositories including DNA banks, spiritual facilities and churches and temples and mosques. All of them are wary of economic development as we see it on Earth, bulldozers permanently scarring large swaths of land, and pollution everywhere. They are aware that the Moon, though desolate and barren, is even more fragile since it has no atmosphere or seasons or climate variations. Even the constant operation of rockets would be sufficient to forever alter the lunar landscape as we know it. So, we expect the pioneering lunar settlers to become far more sensitive in preserving the lunar environment than we do here on Earth, and develop and evolve the technologies to use resources accordingly.
Sound space policy is built up from hard facts on the ground, and not on grand visions. The current US administration clearly sees the value of our space program as an instrument for both domestic and international policy. The Obama administration sees the International Space Station as a golden goose that keeps on laying. Even though Russia seems at odds with current developments around the world, it seems unlikely that any of the partners will bail out of the agreements in place. There is a long waiting line of nations, chomping at the bit, to enter agreements and memoranda of understandings to participate in the ISS program, even as the State Department courts capable nations like India and Brazil to extend the reach and influence of the US space program in international affairs.
So, in the prevailing global economic climate, there is no need at all for the current US administration to expand the effort to include any other visionary, new and ambitious projects like return to the Moon or Mars.
Two generations of our best and brightest engineers, now bordering on three, since Apollo, have spent their lives waiting to execute ambitious missions beyond low Earth orbit. Can we continue to postpone missions till we get all the right "good to have" technologies in place, as is the case for Mars, or do we execute missions that we can right now with existing technologies, as is the case for the Moon? It is important to remember that leading edge technologies tend to evaporate, if they are not put to good use in a timely manner.
Is the space program about STEM, or is STEM just a byproduct of visionary space missions that strive to push the envelope of our skills using state of the art technologies? These are the questions that our leaders need to be asking.
Unless governmental policy is articulated clearly, we will continue to vacillate about the visions and missions of our space program. Is this just about science, or technology or STEM ? or something much, much bigger ? Every visionary report has clearly suggested that human space activity at its core is about humans moving out into the solar system. It is really about extending civilization beyond Earth.
There will be false starts. The Panama Canal or the Euro Chunnel tunnel are examples of large endeavors that had to wait for generations for the right mix of technologies and politics. Starting a new, extraterrestrial branch of civilization will be much harder. Fall back options are surely much better, and political failure backlash fewer, if we start this endeavor closer to home, on the Moon.
"Outta sight is outta mind" is still a powerful heuristic in human affairs. Mars is a speck in the night sky that is discernable to the experienced viewer, but the Moon is a very visible celestial disc that graces our skies every day, showing dynamic phases, with clear landmarks that are visible to all of humanity. As da Vinci so eloquently said about flight, so since we have been there, we yearn to go back.
If our wish is to learn to live on an extraterrestrial body, to establish an extraterrestrial permanent settlement now, as opposed to two decades and another lost generation of engineers, then we should be lining up our ducks and executing lunar missions aimed at settlement, starting right now. We should leverage the current excitement among spacefaring nations of the world and those who are willing partners to quickly seize the opportunity and make an international lunar settlement a priority and a reality.
It is very hard to predict the future. Logic had it that we would first establish an Earth orbiting station, and from there, go to the Moon. It turned out differently. The visionary idea of going back to the Moon, by helping other nations to do it is championed by astronauts like Buzz Aldrin. This is a unique arena of endeavor in which the US can reap a lot of good will quickly, globally. NASA is already supporting projects like PISCES here on Hawaii to this end.
The US can take the lead to establish a 21st century United Nations on the Moon, at a location from where the whole world can truly appreciate the fragile beauty of our biosphere. Or, as an Islamic student in my graduate studio proposed, we might help that great religion, for which the Moon is a symbol of worship, to build the ultimate mosque there. While scientists and astronomers contemplate large observatories, experiments and hazardous experiment laboratories on the Moon, recent architectural competitions have proposed spiritual facilities like monasteries and cathedrals, or even cemeteries and memorial monuments. Or perhaps, as some think, the Moon might be the best platform from which to launch and intercept an asteroid or cometary fragment that is headed for Earth impact with cataclysmic potential.
From that vantage point, with our eyes on the Moon, Earthlings could be the real stewards of planet Earth, keeping guard, literally, round the planet, round the clock, from the heavens.
To sum up, civil architects use heuristics, or rules of thumb, to categorize complex and seemingly intractable problems, and often grapple with conflicting needs and requirements to create useful constructs. This is true for buildings and environments that shape our routines, or for cities and farms that support and nourish millions of lives. For space architects, those engineers who grapple with complex problems associated with human space missions and extraterrestrial development, there are six "P"s that need to be clearly articulated before any mission can be undertaken to Mars. Clarity in the Policy of the administration and Protection of crew from space radiation are in the top rung of priority. Reliable Power(nuclear) and Propulsion for quick transit, landing and liftoff are key to any mission to the Moon or Mars.Unlike the past, the Private sector will play a backbone role in all space activity. Since Mars transit times are many months long and radiation damage to crew is cumulative, unless and until we find innovative ways to protect crew, or get to destinations quickly, Proximity is an overriding factor, and our destination is currently limited to the Moon, where we can get to quickly to the safety of the surface and settle underground, keeping space radiation in check.
Dangling the Mars carrot at the space community has had a retarding effect on progress because the technologies for sustaining a Mars mission cannot be achieved in a timely manner without hard data gleaned from extended Moon missions. By driving a wedge within the space community, it becomes harder to create consensus and focus efforts and budgets, when, in fact, we should be pursuing a vibrant series of missions, well planned and in sequence, that allows us to close all the strategic knowledge gaps with hard data from extended and ever more complex lunar missions that we can accomplish today.
More than five centuries ago, some brave explorers set sail across the ocean, in their most advanced technology wielding ships of their day, to discover and settle the American continent and eventually to lay the foundations and build up our great society. In this 21st century, the site for a truly biplanetary civilization lies just three days away by rocketship. The Moon is about the size of Africa, a celestial continent with visible landmarks, waiting for settlement. We left our footprints and vehicles there some five decades ago. Many nations have ongoing missions or are currently charting plans and have ambitions to go there. Humanity can start to lay the building blocks for Planet Moon now, and the United States can play a shepherding role like we did with the ISS, but in an even grander scale, if we choose to. And in so doing, we can help the rest of the world aspire to a better future for all humanity, and also bring solar system resources into our sphere of influence and better prepare to settle the rest of the solar system.
There is a growing band of thought leaders who think we live in the Anthropocene era where human activities directly impact the fragile biosphere in irreversible ways, and a chorus who think the carrying capacity of the Earth has been reached. They feel that our species is contributing to rapid changes in climate patterns and sustainable growth. Rather than continue to fix and seek tweaks to economic activity, more and more people think we should move out into the solar system. With the human space program, perhaps this diaspora has already begun, and the Moon beckons us all to step out of the cradle of humanity and break free from what is otherwise a zero sum game for resources here on planet Earth, as we see today with our struggle for energy among the oil producing economic community.
If it were just about flags and footprints, yes, we have been to the Moon, and yes, we should plant another flag on Mars. But this is not about just flexing a nation's technologic prowess anymore. It is truly about extending our species outward into the cosmos and about building serviceable pathways to celestial destinations for all humanity to settle and thrive, to live long and prosper, as the recently departed Mr.Spock might say. So, is it the Moon or Mars ? Those economic bean counters argue it is all about money. But there is also a well known counterpoint that when all the talk is about money, it is really not about money. Could it be that we, as a species, are running bankrupt on imagination front ? There is a less known heuristic that architects employ with great effect. When offered a choice, take both. And it has served them well.
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