Friday, February 18, 2005

Returning to the moon?

I ran into another blog today, Marshall Brain's blog, author of where he highlighted the history of space travel.

To think that we went from knowing absolutely nothing about space travel in the 50's to putting a man on the moon only a decade lately, it is a bit surreal.

Why would it take 15 more years from now to put a man again on the moon?

Simple answer. Drive. We've been to the moon, there's no real drive to go at it again.

Even though we have much more advanced materials, technology, experience, and computers now a days, it's not that simple. It's not like you can just put a pentium 4 in the space shuttle (replacing the 60's calculator equivalent computer) to make it better.

You can have as much advanced materials and computation power as you want, but in the end, it's the designers/scientists/engineers/etc enginuity, to put everything together and make it work that matters. Of course, tons of research money (which means more people, more desire to solve the problem) helps too.

Heh, I wonder, if all the trillions of dollars put into space flight had been put into other research, what might have developed?

An exerpt from Marshall's blog:
President Bush has announced his plan to return to the Moon, with an eventual goal of going to Mars. CNN reported the plan this way:

The plan, disclosed by the president in a speech at NASA headquarters on Wednesday, shifts the long-term focus from the space shuttle and the international space station to the creation of a new manned space vehicle that will be flying with a crew in 10 years and will return humans to the moon within 16 years.

It's that "16 years" part that has me dumbfounded. Look at the history of early U.S. spaceflight:

* January 31, 1958 - Explorer 1 is the first U.S. satellite in orbit.
* October 8, 1958 - NASA opens its doors.
* January 31, 1961 - Ham the chimp successfully rehearses first manned flight
* May 5, 1961 - First manned Mercury flight (first American in space)
* July 21, 1961 - Second Mercury flight
* Feburary 20, 1962 - Third Mercury flight (first American orbital flight)
* May 24, 1962 - Fourth Mercury flight
* October 3, 1962 - Fifth Mercury flight
* May 15-16, 1963 - Sixth Mercury flight (first full day in space)
* March 23, 1965 - Gemini 3
* June 3-7, 1965 - Gemini 4 (first EVA by an American)
* August 21-29, 1965 - Gemini 5
* December 4-18, 1965 - Gemini 7
* December 16-17, 1965 - Gemini 6A (first space rendezvous with Gemini 7)
* March 16, 1966 - Gemini 8 (first space docking)
* June 3-6, 1966 - Gemini 9A
* July 18-21, 1966 - Gemini 10
* September 12-15, 1966 - Gemini 11
* November 11-15, 1966 -Gemini 12
* October 11-22, 1968 - Apollo 7 (first live telecast from space)
* December 21-27, 1968 - Apollo 8 (first lunar orbit)
* March 3-13, 1969 - Apollo 9 (first crewed lunar module flight)
* May 18-26, 1969 - Apollo 10 (lunar module orbits moon but does not land)
* July 16-24, 1969 - Apollo 11 (men land on moon for first time and return safely)
* November 14-24, 1969 - Apollo 12
* April 11-17, 1970 - Apollo 13 (first space rescue)
* Jan 31 - Feb 9, 1971 - Apollo 14
* July 26-Aug 7, 1971 - Apollo 15 (first car on the moon)
* April 16-27, 1972 - Apollo 16
* December 7-19, 1972 - Apollo 17 (last man on the moon)

That is an absolutely amazing record of achievement. There is no other way to say it.

How in the world did we accomplish all of that? Think about it -- At the start of 1958, America had never had anything in orbit and NASA did not even exist. We knew NOTHING. We had never tried to keep a person alive in the vacuum and weightlessness of space, had never used ablative heat shields to handle re-entry, had never fired a retrorocket in space, had never created a space suit, had never "walked in space", had never fired maneuvering rockets in space, had never stopped and restarted an engine in space, had never docked two spacecraft in space, had never left earth orbit, had never orbited another object in space, had never landed on another object, had never taken back off from another object. We truly knew nothing in 1958. We did not even know what the moon was like -- there was some concern that it would be too soft to walk on. We had never sent a probe to the moon in 1958.

Not only did we know nothing, but the computer technology we had available in the 1960s was pathetic. Most of the design work on these space missions was done with pencil and paper and slide rules. Slide rules! We did not have computer-aided design, computer controlled machine tools, or PCs/Workstations. There was no NASA, no Internet, no microprocessors, no graphite composites, no cell phones, no Microsoft, no space stations....

Yet, despite our total ignorance and lack of technology, we went from NOTHING all the way to man on the moon in just 11 years. It is unbelievable when you think about it.

Now we are talking about going back to the moon. Look at where we stand today compared to 1958. In 2004:

* We've already been to the moon six times.
* We have 45 years of experience in space.
* We now have tons of technology, amazing computers, hyper-realistic flight simulators, unbelievable virtual design tools, highly automated computer-controlled factories, a huge space station already in orbit and a space shuttle able to lift 65,000 pounds of cargo per mission.
* NASA is already fully staffed with thousands of employees who have hundreds of successful missions under their belts.

Given our current position, how long should it take us to get back to the moon? Two years? Maybe three? Compared to where we were in 1958, it should now be trivial to put people on the moon and establish a colony there. Instead, it will take us more than a decade simply to retrace our steps. It will probably take us longer to go back to the moon than it took us to get there the first time!

How do we get back to the kind of energy, drive and passion -- and the kind of creativity, skill and talent -- that America had in the 1960's? How is it that with all the advancements we've made in the last 45 years, we are actually slower now than we once were? What is that telling us?

We should elevate our expectations. Americans should be living on the moon in 2010 and walking on Mars in 2020. If not, it would be very interesting to see China leapfrog us and beat us to Mars in spite of America's substantial head start


At 6:04 PM, Blogger Zutroy said...

The key word in Space "Race" is race. The West was desperate to do all these things before the Russians could and were willing to acheive it at a high cost, both monetary and in human lives. And once space was conquered, it was on to the next cultural battleground. Fear of the other guy beating you to it is a great motivator, and America doesn't have that anymore.

At 9:06 PM, Blogger Medieval said...


Until the next superpower comes around :)

My guess is it'll be Canada ;)


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