Opinion

Lunar Loony Tunes

Why in heavens are we trying to send humans back to the moon, and then to Mars?

By Crawford Kilian 20 Jul 2009 | TheTyee.ca

Tyee contributing editor Crawford Kilian has published two sci-fi novels involving space flight.

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Houston, we have other priorities.

The 40th anniversary of the first manned moon landing is a good time to reflect on the wisdom of putting humans in space at all.

For those born since July 20, 1969, space flight is something that's always gone on somewhere in the background, and the landings themselves are ancient history.

Nowadays, even as NASA cheerleads the need to revisit the moon as a stepping stone to reaching Mars, few people would set that as a high priority for our collective strivings.

But for the 40 years before 1969, putting men in space was a dream the public widely shared.

Rockets emerged from World War II as overrated secret weapons: The money Hitler poured into buzz bombs and V-2s would have been more effectively spent on jet fighters or even conventional aircraft to slow down the Allies.

But rockets had glamour, and the potential to be intercontinental vehicles for nuclear weapons, so they had a strong postwar lobby. In the 1940s and '50s, popular entertainment offered exciting visions of human space travel, from the young-adult sci-fi novels of Robert Heinlein to the slick articles by Wernher von Braun in Collier's magazine, with gorgeous illustrations by Chesley Bonestell. When Disneyland opened in the mid-1950s, one ride offered a view of the U.S. from an orbiting space platform.

Sputnik, in 1957, made it a race: The Russians got into orbit first, and then got the first dog into orbit, and then the first man. American self-respect required a full-scale response, which President Kennedy supplied with the Apollo program.

Tang, Teflon, and Spam in a can

Ex-fighter pilots, rebranded as astronauts, learned how to be "Spam in a can," as Tom Wolfe put it, mere passengers with almost no need or ability to control their machines. But enormous industries emerged to keep astronauts alive and functioning in space. Firms built training facilities, medical researchers monitored astronauts' physical condition, and some company even invented Tang, a powdered orange juice. That, and Teflon, were sold as "spin-off" products that warranted the high costs of putting men in space.

That cost, just for the Apollo program, was $25.4 billion. In return, we got about 400 kilograms of moon dust and rocks and a photo, "Earthrise," that Al Gore used to advantage in An Inconvenient Truth.

The political return on investment, however, wasn't even that good. Even Apollo 13, for all the drama of its aborted journey, couldn't match the excitement on the screen of Star Wars and Battlestar Galactica, not to mention the eternal Star Trek.

But manned space flight was still a field for competition with the Soviets, who were launching their own cosmonauts into orbit pretty steadily. So the U.S. developed the shuttle and promoted the idea of a space station to give the shuttle a destination. But the shuttle was more expensive to run than expected, and even the U.S. couldn't afford to build a space station on its own. So it became the International Space Station.

Paying the bills with space tourism

The ISS has also been costly -- some estimates range as high as almost $100 billion. The actual peer-reviewed science coming from it hasn't been much, and zero-gravity industries (pharmaceuticals! perfectly round ball bearings!) have not paid off. Billionaire space tourists help cover the station's operating costs.

But just as NATO survived the fall of the Soviet Union, and U.S. military spending has expanded since then, the manned space flight industry has become its own reason for existence. Returning to the moon will bring in scores of billions. Launching a manned expedition to Mars would bring in hundreds of billions.

Supposedly the cost of such expeditions is the price we pay for being human, with a mystical urge to go out and explore. But only a few dozen humans will get the opportunity, and the farther they go, the more physically and psychologically miserable will be their ride.

And the taxpayers will get nothing but news reports and some cool video.

Space exploration should certainly continue, but putting people in space only runs up costs while yielding no scientific benefits -- unless you want to include scientific studies on how humans deteriorate in an environment they were never designed for.

Where no man has gone

Since the last Apollo expedition, astronauts have stayed within a few hundred kilometers of the earth's surface. Meanwhile, unmanned space probes have visited almost every planet and sent back information that has vastly increased our knowledge of the solar system.

The Mars Rovers, designed for a few weeks' service, have been operating for over five years. The Huygens probe landed on Saturn's moon, Titan, and sent back images of its surface. Its "mother ship," Cassini, is still exploring the Saturn system and will fly by Titan again on July 24. Data continues to come from the Voyager probes, launched in the 1970s and now twice as far from the sun as Pluto is.

Money not spent on putting spam in a can could go into many more such probes, not to mention better space telescopes. Robots could spend years, like the Mars Rovers, exploring other worlds -- and send back a virtual-reality stream of data, letting millions of people see and hear just what the robots do.

That might not be as glamorous, or as politically exciting, as putting two Canadians in the ISS at the same time. But those same Canadians, and all the other astronauts, cosmonauts and taikonauts, might do more to advance space science by remaining earthbound. They could help to design and run the robots that will indeed go where no man has gone before, and never should.  [Tyee]

Read more: Science + Tech

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