Tuesday, November 01, 2005

The Problems with the New Moon Shot

I've discussed some of the practical realities of NASA's new plan for the Moon before. However, as this is a government program, more aspects of the project need to be considered than just technical feasibility.

The biggest is public support, as without it there will be no political support and a lack of political support gets us the pointless space program we've had for the last thirty years. Unfortunately, the public support has been weak as the public has responded to the ESAS with a collective yawn.

The why isn't hard to figure out. For a generation raised on StarWars and four whole new series of StarTrek, NASA's "Buck Rogers" moon program fails to impress. While NASA was hobbled by congress and forced to waste the end of the 20th century on the Shuttle and ISS (both of which failed to reach major project goals) the American people had to get their imaginations stoked by the only source available: Sci-fi depicting technology which won't exist for... Well, much of it might never exist.

Yet, the public perception problem is worse than this. The last moon landing was in December of 1972. This was a few years before I was born, but even a decade later in the early 80's what the moon landing meant to the people was still clear when they talked about it: the hope that some day, the Average Joe might be able to go to the moon.

In the decades since, that feeling has pretty much disappeared from the collective consciousness. If anything, this "Apollo on steroids" program dealt the death blow. Saying that in 15 years we'll finally pickup where we left off 50 years before doesn't inspire hope for the future.

Dan Schrimpsher hit the nail on the head when he wrote of the ESAS in his blog:

So why am I not jumping for joy and waving my arms? The problem is, it doesn't get me and my wife to space. That, of course, is my ultimate goal.

This new plan doesn't inspire people to dream of traveling in space. The way NASA is selling it just adds more weight to the idea that space exploration is something just a few "other people" do and something you'll never do.

NASA doesn't have to send this message. There are lots of companies hoping to make money from space, most of them through tourism. While the immediate goal of most is sub-orbital excursions, orbital and lunar resorts are in the longer-term plans. NASA needs to take advantage of this fact to support a new message: We're leading the way so that YOU can follow.

In more detail, NASA's message needs to be:

  1. In 1969 we proved that at great expense and risk, a man could walk on the moon and return.
  2. Over the past few decades, we've greatly refined our technology and expanded our knowledge.
  3. Now, we're ready to prove that a permanent base can be established on the Moon.
  4. Private industry will then be able to use our experience to let you visit and colonize the Moon.
  5. We'll be leading the way again on Mars.

If the current plans of NASA and the various private space companies largely succeed, I expect this is the way history will tell it. Why not help it along by selling this version to the people?


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