The Lunar Yellow (Non)Peril

by Rand Simberg on January 10, 2012 · 5 comments

in Features, Space

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Over at PJMedia today, I have a piece on the recently released white paper from the Chinese space program that lays out their plans for the next five years, and the overreaction to it from some conservative commentators. It’s all of a piece with the ongoing misinformation campaign against the Obama space plans, which have been repeatedly mischaracterized by almost everyone, but particularly by people antipathetic to the administration, for the past two years, ever since the new administration space policy was announced at the end of January, 2009:

[Cal Thomas] expands on the theme of the military lunar base.

Who doubts that China will use trips to the moon to build a permanent colony and will operate that colony, at least in part, to further its military goals? China certainly will have the capability through its own GPS system to jam or make mischief with America’s global positioning system network.

Well, Cal, for one, I doubt it. U.S. military planners have been spending decades trying to come up with a justification for a military man in space (I did a stint of it myself in the early eighties at the Aerospace Corporation, and later at Rockwell when we were trying to sell the Air Force a “blue” Shuttle orbiter), and have not been able to do so, at least at current launch costs. If we can’t find military utility for earth orbit missions, how much less relevant is putting a base on the moon (and commenters, don’t waste time citing The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress — it’s science fiction, and the notion has been debunked multiple times)?

I think that, when it comes to militarily useful lunar bases, the burden of proof is on those proposing them, and there’s nothing in Cal Thomas’s column to indicate that he’s given it any deep thought, except that anything the Chinese choose to do must be nefarious. I’ll take this threat seriously when I see it described, using real-world physics, and yes, show your work. Beyond that, I’d like an explanation of how a rival navigation system can “jam or make mischief” with our own, in a way that couldn’t be done much more cost effectively.

No, the administration didn’t cut NASA’s budget. No, the administration isn’t redirecting the agency to focus on Muslims. No, it was not the end of human spaceflight. And no, the Chinese are not going to build a military base on the moon, at least not any time soon.

Meanwhile, over at Reason, editor Matt Welch has some thoughts about the mission creep of the “If we can put a man on the moon” analogy. It’s long been used as an excuse for some massive government program, even when the proposed goal is nothing like putting a man on the moon. I had some thoughts of my own on this topic back during the last presidential campaign:

Putting a man on the moon was a remarkable achievement, but it was a straightforward well-defined engineering challenge, and a problem susceptible to having huge bales of money thrown at it, which is exactly how it was done. At its height, the Apollo program consumed four percent of the federal budget (NASA is currently much less than one percent, and has been for many years). Considering how much larger the federal budget is today, with the addition and growth of many federal programs over the past forty years makes the amount of money spent on the endeavor even more remarkable.

But most of the other problems for which people have pled for a solution, using Apollo as an example, were, and are, less amenable to being solved by a massive public expenditure. We may in fact cure cancer, and have made great strides over the past four decades in doing so, but it’s a different kind of problem, involving science and research on the most complex machine ever built — the human body. It isn’t a problem for which one can simply set a goal and time table and put the engineers to work on it, as Apollo was. Similarly, ending world hunger and achieving world peace are socio-political problems, not technological ones (though technology has made great strides in improving food production, which makes the problem easier to solve for governments that are competent and not corrupt). So most of the uses of the phrase never really made much sense, often being non sequiturs.

Matt’s piece is also an introduction to this month’s issue of Reason magazine, which is focused on space. It’s on the stands and in the mail now, and other pieces in it, including my own, and contributions from Greg Benford and Bob Zubrin, will be going on line over the next couple weeks.

KVY January 10, 2012 at 11:39 pm

Great article! One small correction the new administration space policy was announced at the end of January, 2010 not “January, 2009″

John David Galt January 11, 2012 at 12:39 am

Please explain how “TMIaHM has been debunked.” I call BS.

Rand Simberg January 11, 2012 at 10:23 am

Did you follow the link?

Bob Robertson January 16, 2012 at 11:08 am

Going to the moon, the Transcontinental Railroad, and other “well-defined engineering challenge(s)” can be pushed by throwing huge quantities of money at them, but only through coercion. Tax money.

The moon landing was remarkable only for the fact that it was done so early. Just like the Great Northern railroad, which came later but was built at a small fraction of the cost of the government funded effort, the costs of doing a moon landing 10 years later would have been much less than in 1969, and less dangerous.

Personally, I like the X-Prize method. Set a goal, let people who can achieve it do so.

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