Forty years since Armstrong’s one small step – where next?

Paul Raven @ 20-07-2009

Buzz Aldrin begins his moonwalkI’m too young to join in the first-hand reminiscences of the Moon landings, but it’s still an event that played a huge role in my imaginative development – as it doubtless did for many other geeks and science fiction fans. [image courtesy NASA]

I think the Apollo project’s biggest symbolism for me is that of the bitter ironies of human technological achievement: to have sent a man into space, had him walk on the Moon and come back safely is quite simply a staggering achievement by whatever metric you choose to use; to have only found the motivation and political will to do so because of a geopolitical/ideological pissing match is rather sad. And it’s that very motivation that ensured us never returning to Luna, as Tom Wolfe points out:

Everybody, including Congress, was caught up in the adrenal rush of it all. But then, on the morning after, congressmen began to wonder about something that hadn’t dawned on them since Kennedy’s oration. What was this single combat stuff — they didn’t use the actual term — really all about? It had been a battle for morale at home and image abroad. Fine, O.K., we won, but it had no tactical military meaning whatsoever. And it had cost a fortune, $150 billion or so. And this business of sending a man to Mars and whatnot? Just more of the same, when you got right down to it. How laudable … how far-seeing … but why don’t we just do a Scarlett O’Hara and think about it tomorrow?

And that NASA budget! Now there was some prime pork you could really sink your teeth into! And they don’t need it anymore! Game’s over, NASA won, congratulations. Who couldn’t use some of that juicy meat to make the people happy? It had an ambrosial aroma … made you think of re-election …

But hey – this site’s about the future, so let’s look forwards, eh? Former NASA administrator Alan Stern reckons that private industry is the future of spaceflight, and that sub-orbital tourism might be ubiquitous in another decade or so:

I think that when anyone can fly in space, rather than just those that governments choose to send in to space, it’s going to really revolutionize, not only how we look at it, but it’s going to be an accelerant to the desires to have even more of that.

The prices start off pretty high – it’s tens of millions of dollars to fly in space, but those prices will come down, and fly sub-orbitally, ticket prices are in the range of a couple hundred thousand dollars, but those are going to come down a lot to I think over time. I expect that 10 years from now, they’ll be a fraction of that.

And it turns out there may be another motivational force to pull us back to the Moon – if we ever manage to crack commercial fusion power generation, we’d be able to rake up a whole lot of fuel up there:

… the Moon’s soil is rich in helium-3, which comes from the outer layer of the Sun and is blown around the Solar System by solar winds. The element is rarely found on Earth, unlike on the Moon, where it is heavily accumulated because it is pushed away by the Earth’s magnetic poles.

[…]

Reserves of helium-3 on the Moon are in the order of a million tonnes, according to some estimates, and just 25 tonnes could serve to power the European Union and United States for a year.

That’s a whole lot of fuel… but it’s still a finite resource, and historically those tend to lead to trouble and strife of some sort as the world’s powers jostle for the biggest slice of the pie. At least if colonialism reaches the Moon there won’t be any natives to exploit introduce to civilisation…

… none that we know of, anyway.