Michael Wolraich's picture

    Moon Water: What's it Good For?

    In yesterday's NYT, NASA-affiliated scientist William S. Marshall, wondered why no one seems to care about NASA's discovery of water on the moon.

    Almost as surprising as NASA’s announcement is the lack of attention it has received. Thirty years ago, a development like this would have been heralded as one of humanity’s greatest discoveries.

    Marshall hypothesized that astronomers were disappointed because they couldn't see the impact plume and that the rest of us were too distracted by problems on Earth.

    Marshall should stick to astrophysics.

    Mr. Marshall, I was raised on science fiction. Nothing could get me more excited than the idea of real space colonization, even without galactic empires, robot wars, or cute furry aliens. But you and your folks really need to make a better case for a lunar base if you want me to get behind it.

    First you tell us that the moon will become "a high-speed transportation hub for the solar system." That's fantastic. A high-speed transportation hub will help clear the congestion on the popular Earth-Jupiter space route. Unfortunately, you haven't made clear why we need so many trips to the solar system, which has frankly turned out to be a pretty boring place. The most happening planet other than earth is a cold sandy virtually airless desert. We should keep exploring the solar system to be sure, but it's pretty hard to get excited about.

    Next, you tell us that a lunar habitat is important "for our species' survival":

    Humanity needs more than one home because, with all our eggs in one basket, we are at risk of low-probability but high-consequence catastrophes like asteroid strikes, nuclear war or bioterrorism.

    It's nice to imagine astronauts chilling in the comfort of their swank moon base while Earth goes up in flames, but let's be serious. A lunar base would not survive a NASA management shuffle let alone a 2012-style apocalypse back home. Yet if we were to somehow build a self-sufficient base that survives on water and moon rock while avoiding solar radiation, we could surely build terrestrial shelters that would survive any bio-nuclear-asteroid catastrophes.

    Finally, you tell us about all the "technological and other advancements" a lunar base will bring:

    Consider the side-effects of the Apollo program: it drove the development of small computers, doubled the number of doctoral students in science and math in about a decade and marked a new stage in relations between the Americans and Soviets.

    So a lunar base will mark a new stage in our relations with who, the North Koreans? Spell this one out for me. As for the technology, sure, developing a lunar base would require us to develop new technology. But if spending money on moon research will indirectly foster new technology, couldn't we just skip the moon part and invest directly in technology research?

    No Mr. Marshall, the important difference between 30 years ago and today is not the visibility of any plumes or the number of terrestrial problems on our minds. The difference is that we've been to the moon already, and it's just not that interesting. So if you want to get us excited about space colonization, you need to move beyond gray rock and red sand, beyond doomsday scenarios, and beyond indirect technological advances. You have to give us something to dream about again.



    Something to dream about might be nice, but what would it be?  As you note, we know much more about our solar system than we did 40 or 40 years ago.  Though we might find some interesting life-forms, we know we won't find anything like life resembling that on Earth.  The other planets in our solar system are essentially inhospitable.  Travel outside our solar system would likely require a multi-generational journey, but to what end?  What would these dreams be made of?

    Personally, I kind of like the idea of some astronauts chillin' on the moon while the world is destroyed.  It's a nice counter-point to the image of John Cusack running, driving and apparently flying to stay just ahead of impending doom.  When I see that trailer, I just keep wondering, "Where the hell is he going?"  Where is he going to land that airplane when the ground beneath him appears to be falling away?  I guess it's effective marketing.

    I don't have an answer of course. I'll say that I find the work on photon sails more exciting than moon water because it at least holds out a promise of actually going somewhere.

    Agree 100 per cent, Genghis.

    A big reason the bombing of the moon didn't make a big splash was that the result was anything but a surprise. The evidence for water on the moon has been building for years. And they crashed the probe directly where they knew that water had to be. The question for me wasn't whether there would be water in the resulting plume, it was "How much?" The answer appears to be: "Lots." Great.

    Marshall's disappointment that the public isn't clamoring for moon colonies is understandable. He's one of the guys who would get to build them, and I'm sure there are thousands more at NASA who think just like him. But they lost. One of Obama's earliest and best policy decisions (which NASA fought tooth and nail) was to scrap Bush's airily declared plan to return to the moon. As a stepping-stone to Mars!

    I think it's great we walked on the moon in the affluent '60s and '70s. But with the economy in ruins and people dying needlessly every day for lack of health-care funding, a repeat was just not in the cards. That diehards at NASA were willing to sacrifice everything else to get the space ball rolling -- the ISS, Hubble, all the unmanned probes -- shows what an irrational boondoggle the whole idea was.

    Unmanned missions and high-resolution multi-wavelength observatories have multiplied our knowledge of the universe many times over (and done it at quite manageable cost). Let's spend a few decades digesting that new knowledge; actual space travel can wait.

    IMHO, your last point is utterly germane here.  Astrophysics has tons of fodder for inquiry right now (one of the reasons that empirical findings have been forthcoming in astro in recent decades, as opposed to the relative stand-still in theoretical), but that fodder didn't come from manned missions.

    I'm going to have to disagree, on religious grounds: I want to go to the moon!

    OK, I'll clarify that a bit: I could come up with a whole laundry list of reasons for why it would make sense for us to go back to the moon, to build colonies there, and to do likewise on Mars.

    However, I'd know (and you'd probably guess) that I was creating those arguments in order to satisfy a pre-conceived viewpoint, and I'd be guilty of what I rail against the Creationists for. There are times when I'd do it anyway, but today's not one of them.

    I'm going to thread a needle here. I won't argue why it makes sense to go back to the moon, but if we're evaluating projects based off their utility, I will ask one to quantify the utility of the arts. (Note that I'm not arguing against the funding of the arts.)

    To be fair, I did a little research on relative funding amounts. In 2008, the NEA received almost $150 million, while NASA received over $17 billion, or more than 110x as much money. That said, NASA gave us Tang, while the NEA gave us crucifixes in urinals. :)

    Sorry Neb, I haven't had time to comment. I don't argue that we need to fund projects based on strict utility, but you need some kind of rationale commensurate to the funding level. We fund the arts because we believe that art and culture is intrinsically important. Basic science is also intrinsically important as well as utilitarian. But while a lunar colony would advance basic science, it's a damn expensive experiment. Would we not do better by putting some of those billions into other basic research? Marshall gets this, which is why he tries to come up with other rationales. Unfortunately, he doesn't do a very good job. Nor has anyone else recently, which is one reason that NASA is struggling.

    I get it too, but … I want to go to the moon!

    Can I just give a shout-out to the Earth's magnetic field?

    Pace Marshall ... all of our eggs are in this basket because we can't take any eggs out of this basket without totally freaking irradiating them!

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