Reprinted in the Denver Post, Feb. 15, 2004
The Bush administration’s plan for a return to the Moon is drawing skepticism from many quarters. Some think we can’t afford the cost, and that the money would be better spent on problems here at home. Others look at the spectacular success of the Spirit rover on Mars, and argue that the space program should focus only on robotic missions. Even some space enthusiasts argue against the Moon base, believing we should head directly to Mars. But my 25-year career in science education, including two years at NASA headquarters, tells me these concerns are misplaced. The Moon is the right goal, and now is the right time.
It has been more than thirty-one years since astronauts Eugene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt completed the last of a 3-day series of excursions on foot and by buggy on the surface of the Moon, and blasted off to return home with Apollo 17. For all practical purposes, our human space program has been grounded ever since. Sure, we have flown many times to Earth orbit, and even now there are astronauts aboard the International Space Station — but the Moon is more than one thousand times as far from Earth as the Space Station. If we liken the Apollo Moon landings to the voyages of Columbus, our presence on the Space Station is like a Spanish presence on Gibraltar. An entire generation has grown up in a world where humanity’s greatest accomplishments in space flight belonged only to their parents and grandparents.
Those who worry about the cost of a new space initiative may answer with “so what?” I’m no fan of budget deficits, and I’m a skeptic of supply-side economics, but there are indeed some programs that pay for themselves. The historical case for Apollo is clear-cut. Technology developed for the Moon landings became the basis for modern computers. The need for rapid communication between scientists and engineers working in different places fueled the innovations that led to the Internet. Our success in the race to the Moon turned the tide in the Cold War, ultimately turning former enemies into friends without a shot being fired. Economists can argue over the precise economic benefit of Apollo, but our nation clearly got a great return on its investment.
We can expect just as great a return on the cost of building a permanent Moon base. We’ll need to develop many new technologies to make it possible to live and work on the Moon, and to travel routinely between the Moon and Earth. Moreover, with a permanent base, we can hope to get additional economic benefit directly from the Moon.
To take just a single example, consider the Moon’s potential for offering a new source of clean and abundant energy. One idea suggests obtaining solar energy on the Moon and beaming it back to Earth. Even more intriguing is the prospect for nuclear fusion with helium-3 — a rare gas that is abundant in the lunar soil but virtually nonexistent on Earth. Incredible as it may sound, a nuclear fusion power plant that used hydrogen as its fuel could extract enough energy from the water flowing through your kitchen faucet to power the entire United States. We do not yet know how to build a fusion power plant, but the availability of helium-3 would make the task much easier, and the kitchen faucet example shows that we wouldn’t need much. Think about it: no more concern over global warming, and no more difficulty providing energy to poor people in developing nations, all because of a fuel we find on the Moon.
Let’s move on to the next argument against the Moon — the idea that we can get an even better return from robotic missions. This might arguably be true if we focus only on measurable economic benefits (although I doubt it). After all, we also need new technologies for robotic missions, and robots could in principle tap lunar resources as well. But it neglects what may have been the greatest value of the Apollo landings: the intangible value of inspiration.
For thousands of years, visiting the Moon was the stuff of mythology, and suddenly it was real. If we could put a man on the Moon, then surely no dream was out of reach. We were inspired to believe that anything is possible if you work hard enough, and people around the world looked to America as a nation that could make dreams come true. Robotic missions will always give us the ability to study places that are too far away or too hostile for us to visit ourselves. But no one grows up with the dream of being a robot. Inspiration comes from people.
Finally, let’s turn to the argument that we should skip the Moon and go straight to Mars. Even if this were the right thing to do, it’s far less likely that we could do it now. Mars at its closest is 200 times as far as the Moon. Any realistic plan for visiting Mars envisions the use of local materials to support a human outpost and to manufacture fuel for the return trip. We do not yet know how to do these things, nor do we fully understand the dangers of sending astronauts on such a long trip. Mars is a great goal for the long-term, but we can’t afford to wait on reinvigorating our space program.
Moreover, from the standpoint of inspiration, the Moon has something that not even Mars can offer — the fact that everyone recognizes it in the sky. If we build our Moon colony as an international collaboration, as we should, then people of every nation, every race, and every religion will be working together on the second-most visible object in the sky. Imagine a world in which even the poorest children can look up at the Moon and know that people just like them are living and working there. Imagine a world in which Arabs and Israelis, Chechens and Russians, Americans and Iraqis, can all look up and say, “We are working together up there, so surely we can work together down here.
This coming July 20 will mark the 35th anniversary of the first Moon landing, when Neil Armstrong stepped out and said, “That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.” His words carried the message that space exploration transcends political boundaries, belonging to no one person, nation, or culture. It is time for us to continue our leap, building a base on the Moon as a stepping stone to Mars and beyond. In doing so, we will prove that conflict is not the only option open to our species. A permanent Moon base will offer the hope of a better future, one in which we all learn to work together to preserve our home planet, while at the same time beginning a journey that may ultimately take us to the stars.
End of Original Article
Additional Thoughts on the Moon Initiative (based on comments received about the article above)
Most of the feedback on my commentary about the new Moon/Mars exploration initiative boiled down to two issues: (1) Scientists worry that the space science budget will be decimated to pay for the new initiative, a worry substantiated by the almost immediate cancellation of the Hubble servicing mission. (2) Others wonder how we can possibly afford the initiative. So here are a few additional thoughts…
On the question of how the new initiative will affect the science budget: The cancellation of next year’s planned mission to service and upgrade the Hubble Space Telescope certainly makes scientists nervous. However, NASA’s Administrator claims the decision was NOT based on money, but rather on a variety of factors of which post-Columbia Shuttle safety was paramount. The scientific community is understandably skeptical, so we’ll see where it goes from here. Personally, I think that Hubble and other space science missions are among the only really inspirational things that we as a nation have at present, so it would seem pretty self-defeating to cut them in order to make room for a future program whose most important aspect is its inspirational value.
Turning to the question of where the money will come from, let’s start with a painful truth: the President’s proposed budget for the initiative is woefully inadequate. He is essentially asking to get started with very little new funding now, leaving all the big costs to be dealt with by future presidents. A more serious approach to such a bold initiative would admit that it’s going to cost a lot of money and then make the case that it’s worth the cost. Yes, I think it’s worth spending a couple hundred billion to start a Moon base (for all the reasons outlined in my commentary). Thus, we should get started by finding significant new funding for NASA right now — not by raising its budget by slightly more than inflation, as the President proposed, but by being prepared to double or triple the budget for space exploration. So now to the obvious question: even if the program has long-term benefits, where do we get the money for it now, when we are running a $500 billion deficit this year?
Well, I’ve got to admit that borrowing $500 billion from our children in a single year borders on the criminal. But, that said, borrowing can be worth it if it is for an investment that will provide a positive return in the future. And consider this: The average error in projected budget deficits a year out is about 12%, which means about $60 billion on the $500 billion projection for this year. Thus, the uncertainty in this year’s budget deficit is four times NASA’s entire budget — meaning that even a substantial increase for space is effectively lost in the “noise” among our other budgetary problems. If you accept my contention that there’s a long-term positive return for the space initiative, then we ought to go ahead and find the necessary funding. (It’s also worth noting that even in the short term, money spent on the space program essentially all goes to the creation of fairly high-tech, high-paying jobs that usually stay right here in the U.S. — exactly the kind of jobs that we are most in need of.)
But, you ask, isn’t my claim of a positive return based primarily on the unquantifiable value of “inspiration”? Well, yes, but it’s not quite as loosey-goosey as it may sound. First, for those of you who may have missed my appearance on Denver’s 9 News on Saturday morning, I gave the following analogy to illustrate the importance of inspiration in general:
For those who say that we need to deal with our problems at home first, I liken it to a child with behavioral problems. We have a national behavior problem. We have too many people uninsured, we borrow too much money from our children, and we sometimes have difficulty getting along with other nations. But you don’t solve a child’s behavior problems by locking him a closet and telling him he can come out when they’re fixed. You solve the child’s behavior problems by inspiring him, by making him believe that he has a great future ahead. If we truly want to solve our problems here at home, we’ll have a far better chance if we can give the same type of inspiration to every child, here and around the world. Building a Moon base will do that, because we’ll be reminded of human potential every time we see the Moon in the sky and know that people are up there, living and working, right now.
In addition, while inspiration is generally considered priceless, let’s try to put a value on it anyway, just for the sake of argument. For example, suppose that building a Moon base as a stepping stone to Mars and beyond provides only enough inspiration to cause an additional 1% of the U.S. population to go on to get a college degree. This is a pretty conservative assumption, especially when you consider that the percentage of the U.S. adult population (over age 25) with a 4-year college degree has already risen from 7.7% in 1960 to about 26% today. (Yes, I do think much of that can be traced to Apollo, but that’s a different argument.) Statistical studies of income show that, over a lifetime, the average college graduate earns some $1 million more than a high school graduate. Now run the numbers:
If an additional 1% of the U.S. population of 300 million people gets a college degree, that’s 3 million more people earning college graduate salaries rather than high school graduate salaries. Over their lifetimes, these people earn an additional $1 million each. The total economic impact is then 3 million people times $1 million each, or $3 trillion.
This $3 trillion return is roughly 20 times the estimated cost for the Moon base. That’s an investment that’s hard to beat, even if the cost has been underestimated by a factor of 2 or 3 or 4.
Bottom line: Building the Moon base is the right thing to do, even if the particulars of the President’s current proposal are inadequate or wrong-headed. Rather than trying to kill a great idea, we should all be working together to make sure the great idea is implemented the right way. Let’s not pretend it can be done on the cheap, but instead say that bold ideas require bold steps. As President Kennedy said in 1961, “We choose to go to the moon. 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…” The Moon should never have been a one-shot deal. It’s time to go back and complete a dream that has been on hold for more than 30 years. The future depends on it.