I am all over the map this week, but once again I find that I am torn on an issue. This one might not be quite as deep as the issue I was talking about yesterday, but in my mind it is still pretty important.
Earlier this week I saw posted in several locations this post about privates companies going to the Moon. Here is a YouTube video talking about one such company called Moon Express.
First, I want to say that it is great that private companies are getting involved in space exploration. I personally think that the worlds space administrations have stagnated. They have gotten to a point where they are not doing anything that is going to capture the imagination of the future engineers and scientist they will need to keep their programs running. They, NASA especially, has become a bureaucracy, and no one grows up with the plan to go to work for a bureaucracy. They are not the agile nimble group that send men to the moon nearly 60 years ago.
If they ever want to be like that again, they will need one of two things to happen. Either there could be another space race type of event. Something that evoked enough national pride, that they get the budget they needed to make it happen, and by sheer force of will they moved the giant forward. Or the Space agency would need to break apart in such a way that the the manned mission portion of NASA was seen as a separate agency and could once again be nimble enough to make a mission to the moon or elsewhere possible.
But since neither of those are likely to happen, it is more likely that private companies will be the ones to make it back to the Moon and beyond. As the video says, small groups are now able to do what only super powers could do before, and I think that is great. It is wonderful that the technology has advanced enough that this can happen.
That leads me to my first point.
The technology to go to space, to the moon and to the planets was pioneered by NASA and the other space administrations of the world. I am going to talk about NASA here because that is the one I know the most about. One of the great things about a Government of the people, running a space administration is that everything that they collect, all of the accomplishments that they make, all the technologies they develop, belong to the people whom the govern, and by extension to the whole world.
I recently had a chance to see a presentation by and Astronaut who had spent a good amount of time on the ISS. After she was done with her presentation and she had answered all the standard questions about the bathroom on the space station, she was asked this question. “You are only allowed to take a very few things with you, didn’t you wish that you could have taken your camera?”
The answer to this question was, “No. One of the great things about working with NASA on the international space station is that everything you do up there is available to the public. All those pictures I showed you, all the videos, all the work that we did up there, you can go on NASA.gov right now and look at any of it.” I am paraphrasing here a bit, but that was the gist of what she said.
Everything they do is available to the public at large. That includes all the images and work from the telescopes and the research stations around the world, the ISS, the landers on Mars and even things like the Voyager spacecraft that are breaching the edge of our Solar System. To Prove my point here, ALL of the images that I am using in this post are from NASA’s website. (The one next to the Technology Paragraph is new on their site today. NASA Image of the Day: Unsettled Weather Across Central Australia.)
Here is where the problems could come in. Private companies have to make a profit. There has to be something in it for them. The diner my wife and I go to on the weekends has a sign near the register,
“Running a business without making a profit is like eating soup with a fork. A lot of work but you are still hungry.”
I don’t begrudge them that. No matter how altruistic they are, they do need to make a profit in order to stay in business, otherwise they are a government agency like NASA. keeping that in mind, guess how much data, resources, how many pictures of the moon they have to share with the public?
They don’t have to share any of it with us. Up until now, they have been pretty good about that. SpaceX, who launched the Dragon spacecraft, as far as I know, shared what they learned. Some of that might have been a show of how awesome they are, and some of that might have been the deal they forged with NASA. But what happens with they surpass NASA? What happens when they don’t need the out dated ISS, or the space administration in general?
Let me make it perfectly clear, I don’t see these companies as big bad corporations, I see them as needing to make a profit, so that they can further space exploration. Space is big really really big, and the dollars that is takes to get there is mind numbing. So they will need to sell the information / services / technology so that they can keep doing what they are doing.
That brings me to my next point.
Why are they going to the Moon?
These are for profit businesses, what profit is there in going to the moon? I am in the camp with Buzz Aldrin on this one. We have been to the Moon, we really need to take the next step and put people on Mars. Not just put people there, but put a colony there.
What we discovered from our trips to the moon is that there is really very little there. There might be some water there, but not much, certainly not enough to sustain large colonies. Considering the current theories on the moons formation, what we will find there is what we will find on Earth as far as mineral deposits. To quote Spock from The Wrath of Khan(see the warning in the side bar) “Regula (or in this case the moon) is class ‘D’. It consists of various unremarkable ores. Essentially, a great rock in space.”
So what are the possibilities of going to the moon.
Space Tourism – Obviously there is a draw there. If companies could some how overcome the enormous cost of launching a person into space, and get them past the mind Numbing 4 day trip out there, and the 4 day trip back, the moon would most likely be a very desirable place for space tours to go. It is not the multi-year commitment that it would take to go to Mars. That might itself be a selling point for the “Rich and Famous” who want to say they have been in space but don’t want to disappear from the public eye for a couple of years. But in the end when you add up what it costs to get them there and back again, and the costs of having someone there, eating the food, drinking the water, breathing the air would they be able to make enough of a profit to make it worth it?
Scientific research – There are things that you can do on the moon that you can’t do on Earth. Being on the far side of the Moon blocks all radio noise and light from the Earth (and because I quoted Spock I have to quote Kirk here) “Reliant (or in this case a research station) could be hiding behind that rock.” That would give them the ability to look at space without all the interference from Earth. I am also sure there are experiments that would benifit for the hard vacuum of space or the super cold temperatures or even the low gravity of the moon. But The scientists at research stations would be under enormous amounts of pressure to produce, due to the incredibly high costs of getting them there, and maintaining the facility.
A “Midway point” or Launching point – While it is true that in relative distances the moon is no closer to Mars or the outer planets than the Earth is, it does have a much lower gravity. That means that lunching things off the moon (heavier things that might be manufactured on the the moon) would be cheaper. Is this enough of a reason to have a mission to Mars or the outer planets start on the moon? I am not sure. Would the benefit of launching from the moon out weight the benefit of using the Earth’s gravity to “sling shot” a spacecraft further into space? Is there enough of a gravity well to make using the moon like that a solution? Again things that I don’t know the answer to.
Mining – This one to me is questionable. Yes, there are things on the Moon that could be mined. However, as I said before they are essentially the same things that are on Earth only 384,400 km (238,900 mi) away. There might not be some of the environmental issues on the moon that there are on Earth. It might be easier, due to the low gravity to mine on the moon. But the high price tag of getting people there, and maintaining them there, not to mention getting the mined ore or what ever back to Earth might not make it a commercial viability. Then again at the rate we are using our resources this might indeed be one.
I am sure there are other reasons, but I am unsure that, like these they have a commercial viability. That of course brings be back to both points. NASA was able to send people to the Moon because it was publicly funded. Because it was publicly funded, the public also benefited everything they did. There is no real need for NASA to go back to the Moon so getting the public funding to do so it highly unlikely. Getting the funding and therefore the support of going to Mars or eventually some of the outer planets and their moons on the other hand might very well be possible because we have never been there. Because we know there are things to explore and learn there, and because we do need to start looking at not being stuck in the “cradle of civilization” in case something terrible should happen.
And because I am just that much of a space nut, and I am so happy that all these images are available for public use. Here is a slideshow of all of the pictures I used, in bigger formats so that you can see them better.