January 09, 2004

Back to the Future

Thanks to Chris Hall for listing me as one of the "pundits" he will visit regarding President Bush's expected announcement of a bold new vision for NASA: a return to the Moon to stay and a manned mission to Mars. But I'm going to go at this punditry in a roundabout way.

Charles Paul Freund, in the current [February 2004] issue of Reason, reviews a book entitled Where's My Space Age? by Sean Topham (see Freund, Charles. "Goodbye, Space Child: The space age's bureaucratic dreams sputtered out." Reason. February 2004: 55-61). As reported by Mr. Freund, Where's My Space Age? presents the material artifacts of the future as envisioned at the dawn of the space age -- from toybox illustrations, to comic book art, metallic dresses, and modular architecture -- and follows their development. Freund places this development in a dynamist context:

"[T]he Space Age stands out among various futures because, like the Atomic Age that it overlapped, it seemed to be taking shape. But only some of it -- communications satellites, for example -- reflected people's desires. Much of it was a state program established for geopolitical reasons. . . which meant that it was to follow the trajectory of the state's needs. As those needs shrank, . . . the Space Age that depended on the state's shrinking dreams got ever smaller too. Politically mandated futures don't develop, because the forces behind
them are artificial."

You can see a hint of this in William Gibson's The Gernsback Continuum, where a modern person falls into the alternative world where the idealized vision came true. As Freund writes, "the actual future turned out to be one of material, individuating plenitude and not at all of minimalist class conformity."

But old fashions have a way of resurfacing. Which brings us to this. Or should I say this. My initial reaction is "how cool." But my immediate emotional response is moderated by the fact that I remember the frustration of waiting for the shuttle Columbia to take off after years of delays and cost overruns. Shuttle has not delivered on the promises made to justify its construction.

I can also distinctly remember Ronald Reagan's "Star Wars" speech, and his Space Station speech. We now have a barely habitable white elephant of a station. I also remember writing a space law paper a little more than 10 years ago that cited Bush 41's ambitious Space Exploration Initiative, which was a dead letter by the time the paper was done being edited just a few months later.

All that being said, I generally agree with the reported staging. I strongly believe we need to return to the moon first -- this time to stay. We cannot (and should not expect to) identify all hazards and risks before a multiple-year mission in deep space, which is what a manned landing on and return from Mars would entail. The moon is relatively close, but is the perfect "proving ground" to learn construction techniques, resource extraction techniques, and other skills that would be necessary to survive on Mars.

Also, if we do it right, the moon could be a great tourist destination (not much further away, timewise, than an ocean cruise). If we do it right, then the settlement of a moon base will be done in such a way that leads to cheaper access to orbit for ordinary people. If we do it right, parts of the Mars mission could be built and launched from the shallower lunar gravity well.

But notice all of the "if we do it rights. . ." I unfortunately have little confidence that the same agency that produced Shuttle and the ISS (and that crashed the DC-X as soon as it got it from the BMDO) can do this right. I'll have to reserve final judgment until the President makes his speech and there is something in writing to review. I tend to agree with Rand Simberg on these matters (and have been following his policy postings for some time). If you haven't already done so, read his preliminary post on this topic (he is sure to post more as more details become available) and read the comments left by his readers.

I'll update, too, as more details come out.

Update: I deleted a redundant sentence above. It seems from this article that President Bush agrees with my idea about going to the moon first as a "proving ground" for Mars.

Update: The article is now online here.

Posted by JohnL at January 9, 2004 06:55 PM
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