The Chinese government has finally thrown down the gauntlet. Today they launched their first in a series of missions that will eventually lead to a manned lunar landing. The way things are going with NASA and U.S. Federal government funding they will probably beat us back there and you know what? They deserve it.
The joint venture of the International Space Station was (is) a money sink. The consortium of the United States (NASA), the Russians (RKA), the Japanese (JAXA), the Canadians (CSA) and the Europeans (ESA) has, in this authors opinion, been a travesty of historic proportions. The estimated overall costs of the program from it's conception in the late 1980's through it's estimated completion in 2010 (not including shuttle flights) runs in at $130 billion US Dollars. And what have we got out of the deal? A bunch of tired astronauts/cosmonauts/etc...ronauts boring a hole in the sky. Now don't get me entirely wrong here; much good science has come out of the ISS, but I firmly believe we could have spent this money much more successfully in a permanent manned moon base.
First off, there are the risks of the orbiting station inherent in it's design and purpose. Being on the moon would allow the "colonists" (may I use that hopeful of a term?) a stable platform in which to procure their own resources to survive. While Terran slag (the waste by-product of mining operations) is still more plentiful in resources than virgin moon regolith (the loose crumbled material above solid rock), there are plenty of options available to the enterprising Lunarist. Only a couple of the many examples are as follows. Large amounts of iron reserves are know to be on the moon and could be extracted and used in a wide variety of ways, most notably in the construction of future habitats and infrastructure. Helium-3 is also present in ridiculously higher quantities than on Earth (where it is almost non-existent in accessible form) and has a very large array also, of potential uses. The current market value of 3He is about $5.7 million per kilogram and is needed for a safe (non-radiological) form of fusion. It also has many potential applications in other fields such as medical imaging and cryogenic storage. Many other potential metals would also become available in light of the new alloys and tensile strenghts of current metals that moon production (in low or zero gravity) would allow.
Second, the moon would act as an excellent and efficient base of operations for further explorations of the solar system. Due to the moon having about 1/6th the gravity of Earth, launching of exploratory vehicles, Lunar communication devices, and observation satellites would be a virtual breeze. Because of the lack of atmosphere the moon would make a fantastic observatory, especially, since the moon is tidally locked with Earth, one could place the devices on the far side where they would be shielded from the electro-magnetic interference coming from here.
Finally the Moon is close to the Earth. Apollo astronauts made the trip in three days and direct communication has virtually no delay, only about three seconds; all allowing Earth support and services in relatively quick time in case of emergencies.
So where are we headed as a world in regards to the moon? Russia is contemplating a cosmonautical landing in 2025 and construction of a base in 2027-32. The Japanese are looking at 2030 before a possible base is constructed and Bush has given a proposal (a very casual and optimistic one, it seems, given the current budget proposals) date of 2008 for robotic exploration return and 2019/20 for a return in person. No word on a base for the U.S. yet.
Now the Chinese have not announced official dates yet but the consensus seems to lie in the 2017 range for human landings. While this is not much further ahead than any other country this last detail makes my final point. The failure and disastrous accidents that have plagued NASA over the last decades have crippled us. We, as a nation, are afraid to commit and explore. It was a tragedy the lives lost in the Columbia and Challenger accidents, but these men and women knew what they were doing and the price of frontier advancement has never been free. And I think the Chinese understand this. They will not be quagmired in the poisonous red tape that binds our hands. And they didn't just spend $456 billion in the last 6 years on a futile war. Imagine for a moment if we spent that money on scientific research instead of death. I bet we would be pretty close to a re-usable direct, earth to orbit space plane that has been our goal since they mothballed the shuttle program. Heck, we could have a great start on our own moon station right now.
But we can't go back in time and our mistakes cannot be undone. If the Chinese can make it, more power to them. The Russians have talked about joint ventures with them and if that's what it takes to get humans up there, then they have my support as well. Some one needs to make the sacrifices and just do it. The smart dollars are betting on China.
Just don't come crying to me when the U.S. doesn't even have any heavy launch capabilities left and we're stuck at the bottom of this gravity well, paying the rest of the world just to launch a tel-com satellite for us.
"We may go to the moon, but that's not very far. The greatest distance we have to cover still lies within us." - Charles de Gaulle (1890-1970)
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