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Our future, our universe, and other weighty topics

Wednesday, March 11, 2020

Bad Timing of His "Time to Go Back to the Moon" Editorial

Clearly the coronavirus crisis is now a grave international problem. The number of people infected has now increased beyond 125,000, and is rapidly growing. You can use this page to track the current status of the virus. Thankfully in China the growth of the virus seems to have leveled off. But in countries other than China, the virus seems to be spreading at an alarming rate.  When I click on the "Daily Cases" subtab at the bottom right of this page, I see a recent growth of new cases that looks very alarming.  If I look out my window, I see a significant fraction of people wearing face masks.  The National Guard has been called out to help check the spread of the coronavirus from nearby New Rochelle, New York.  The stock market has now plunged to become a bear market, largely because of the coronavirus.  Today the World Health Organization officially declared the coronavirus to be a global pandemic. 

But today the web site of CNN published an editorial by Roger Launius, one that fails to even mention the coronavirus.  The title of Roger's badly-timed editorial is this: "It's time for us to go back to the moon -- and stay there." Roger fails to make a compelling case for any such thing, and this could hardly be a  worse time for proposing that we spend 30 billion dollars on a lunar base, money that is needed for things such as fighting the spread of deadly viruses here on Earth. 

The first paragraph of Roger's editorial is pure nostalgia. He reminisces about listening to Neil Armstrong's moonwalk on a car radio. Such nostalgia will appeal only to those of his readers who are old-timers.  In the next paragraph Roger claims that we should create a permanant lunar base "to learn more about the cosmos and to further our goal of becoming a multi-planetary species." But we won't actually learn much of anything more about the cosmos by building a permanent base on the moon. We already know practically all there is to know about the moon, which is a dull, boring, lifeless rock.  Since the moon is not actually a planet, and since a permanent lunar base would have only a small number of inhabitants, we would not really be furthering a goal of becoming a "multi-planetary species" by creating a permanent lunar base for a small number of people. 

Roger claims that a lunar base could lead to "a host of discoveries in astronomy, Earth observation, materials science, pharmaceuticals and biomedical research," but gives us no details to back up these far-fetched claims. It's true that the moon is a good place for astronomical observations. But for much less than the cost of building and shipping a telescope to the moon and keeping it manned by astronomers living on the moon, you can build an unmanned telescope such as the Hubble Space Telescope that floats in orbit above our planet. An approach such as the Hubble Space Telescope is a tried-and-true approach, so why not stick with that, rather than trying some far-more-expensive lunar telescope that would probably give you much less "bang for the buck"?  As for "materials science, pharmaceuticals and biomedical research," research in such areas can be done far more effectively on Earth than on some base on the moon. 

Roger tells us, "Should a medical emergency take place, researchers could be rescued relatively easily, unlike on Mars where it would take months to complete a rescue mission."  But it would be vastly less expensive and safer to provide emergency medical care to researchers if they were doing their research here on Earth rather than on the moon.  Roger tells us, "By establishing a base on the moon, we could also further the development of low-cost energy and other technologies by using space as a proving ground for new concepts and hardware that could be used not only on the moon but also on Earth." Yes, new technology can be tested on the moon, but it is a hundred times less expensive to test such technology here on Earth.  Roger also tells us that a lunar base "could also begin the process of building a base for nuclear weapons that could be used to destroy near-Earth asteroids and other threats to our planet." He provides no details supporting any claim that we would be safer from the very remote danger of near-Earth asteroids by putting nuclear weapons on the moon as opposed to our own planet.  I doubt whether any of us would feel safer once launchable nuclear weapons were installed on the moon, as we would wonder about whether such weapons would ever be used against our planet. 

Roger thinks that building a base on the moon is "how we'll take our next great step and learn more about both the universe and humanity." But we won't learn anything more about humanity by building a base on the lifeless rock that is the moon. As for learning about the cosmos, our astronomers are already scheduled to get next year a gigantic gift: the 10-billion-dollar James Webb Space Telescope. That should keep them busy for many years, so why build them a moon base to house some other telescope?

Our limited science dollars should be spent mainly on things related to public health and safety, including new science that helps reduce the grave peril of global warming, and new science to reduce threats such as the threat of global pandemics.  Science dollars that do not directly improve or affect the health or safety of humans should be spent mainly on answering questions related to life and mind, the type of questions that the average person has some interest in.  We should not be spending tens of billions of dollars to answer esoteric "lifeless matter" questions unrelated to life and mind, questions that only a tiny clique of specialists care about (questions such as the precise details of lunar geology).   

A lifeless rock unworthy of much further attention


  1. You're seriously using the coronavirus to attack NASA's Moon plans that they've been working towards for years? The Moon is the essential first step in establishing a sustainable human presence throughout the Solar System. You can't have successful sustained off-world activity without first developing the required technologies and practicing essential activities such as in-situ resource utilization and extended operations in an isolated and hazardous environment. There are challenges we will face that we won't even be aware exist until we get that kind of experience. These considerations are common to every location in the solar system, even if the exact nature of them vary. The Moon is the natural practice ground for these activities due to its proximity. Thankfully, despite what you seem to claim, the majority of people support a Moon program (if not as a top priority).

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    2. Such "the moon is the stepping stone to the planets" logic was often used by Arthur C. Clarke. When I was a boy I read his books, and agreed with such logic. But nowadays I am not persuaded by such logic. There is no clear need to establish "a sustainable human presence throughout the Solar System," which is so hostile to living things outside of our planet. The most hospitable place in the Solar System outside of our planet is Mars, which is still a deadly place to live, with heavy radiation and dust storms.

    3. I understand why the hostilities of the Solar System might make someone question why we should go out there. But the prospect of a future where we can freely traverse the Solar System, and perhaps eventually the galaxy, to visit and work on its myriad worlds excites me, even if I unfortunately won't live to see most of it.

      As perfect of a world the Earth is for us, the thought of being bound here for the rest of our existence is depressing. There's a whole universe out there to explore, with unimaginable discoveries waiting to be made. Shouldn't that be enough reason to try? Else what is life for? It's our adventurous and pioneering spirit that got us to where we are today. Without it we'd still be bashing rocks together in caves. If we wait for everything to be perfect on Earth before venturing out we'll be stuck here forever.

      I firmly believe that expanding out into space will provide humanity as a whole with a greater perspective on our place in the universe, a realization of how small our differences are and of our precious fragility. The Moon is the first step in achieving that.