There are a couple of anniversaries coming up. On 20 July 1969, the astronauts of Apollo 11 landed on the moon. On 20 July 1976, Viking I landed safely on Mars. Next Wednesday, STS-114 is scheduled to launch.
I was watching From The Earth To The Moon, and Tom Hanks said that when he was a kid he fully expected that we would have Pan Am clippers rocketing into space as they had in 2001: A Space Odyssey. He made note of the fact that not only did this not happen, but Pan Am doesn’t even exist anymore.
I too, expected routine space travel by now. Estes made a series of ‘fantasy’ rockets that were models of what we might be flying now. There was the Orbital Transport, which had a shuttle on its back. There was the Trident, its passenger module separated from its engine module by a triple fuselage. The Scissor Wing Transport launched from Earth, and then extended its wings on reentry to glide to an airplane-like landing at the spaceport. And to protect us from invasion or from those pesky Communists, there was the Interceptor.
In addition to the toys there were the films. 2001 showed us a ring-shaped space station. How crude our space stations – Skylab, Mir, ISS – appear by comparison! The one in the film rotated so that occupants were treated to 1g at the outside. If we’re going to spend a long time in space, we really do need to create some gravity. UFO and Anderson’s follow-on Space: 1999 showed us Moon bases.
I’m watching the Cosmos series now. Amazingly, after a quarter-century there is little that needs to be updated. Carl Sagan showed drawings of proposed interstellar craft on the episode I watched last night. One could have been built when the show was filmed – except that it used hydrogen bombs for propulsion, and treaties prohibit nuclear weapons in space. Sagan said that using them for propulsion would have been the best use of these things that he could think of.
I was born during the Space Age. I think many of us who were little at the time thought that we’d be able to buy a ticket to the Moon by now. But it didn’t happen. The ‘live TV show’ from Apollo 13 wasn’t carried by the networks. I’ve heard that during one of the missions, people called the networks to complain that coverage of the mission pre-empted a rerun of I Dream Of Jeannie. A rerun! Going to the Moon? ‘Been there. Done that. What’s next?’ We were still involved in Vietnam, there was an oil embargo in 1973, the President was impeached, and the economy was taking a dive. Remember the commercials? ‘If they can send a man to the Moon, why can’t they…?’ Even during the first Moon Shot, people complained that there were problems to be solved on Earth that could have used the billions of dollars being spent on space exploration.
I’ve mentioned before that science is fascinating to me, and that there’s not enough time in a single lifetime to learn about all of the sciences I’m interested in. For me, space travel is reason enough to travel in space. If it increases our knowledge of the universe, it’s a valuable end in itself. If it leads to settlements off of the planet, so much the better.
But what about practical aspects of space exploration? What can we do on the Moon? Of what use is Moon Base Alpha, and why should we subsidise people to live there? A base could provide a launching point for ships travelling to Mars. With one-sixth the Earth’s gravity, it would be easier to launch a manned vessel from there than from the Earth. But you’d still have to get the fuel up there. And anyway, why not launch a ship built in space from Earth orbit? Or what about mining? It seems to me that anything we could get from the Moon could be gotten more cheaply and easily on Earth. What purpose would a Moon Base serve other than that of a scientific research facility – similar to similar stations in Antarctica, but studying different things?
I think that the main benefit to a Moon Base would be to prepare us to move to the Planets. If we can live on the Moon, then we can live on Mars. And why a Mars base? Well, a base wouldn’t serve much purpose other than scientific research; but a colony might provide other benefits. At the very least, we’ll not have the entire population in one place – all of our eggs (literally) in one basket (figuratively), as it were. If we want to survive as a species, we’ll eventually have to leave the Earth. Now, it’s going to be five billion years or so until the Sun becomes a red dwarf and the Earth will be a burnt-out chunk orbiting within it. We’ve only been around as Homo sapiens for a very short time comparitively. Who knows what we’ll be in 10,000 or 50,000 years, let alone a billion years from now! But an off-world colony might be beneficial in case of a comet strike on our home, which will certainly happen much sooner.
How different our world would have been if we had not stopped flying to the Moon in 1972!