Mon 20 Jul 2009
Look, I’m as much (or more) of a sci-fi, futurist geek as anyone. The Apollo moon landing actually chokes me up with how amazing it is. But at the end of the day, my childhood dreams are just that. It’s kind of callous of me to demand that the government take other nice people’s tax dollars just to make those dreams reality.
The whole getting into orbit thing was understandable — there are lots of very productive things that we can do in orbit, like satellites. But the whole moon/Marsbase thing drives me up a wall. Here’s the thing that most people don’t understand: planets and moons are like the galactic equivalent of potholes — they are the annoying inconveniences you try to navigate around. With the exception of the one we currently live on, and which therefore has quite a bit of infrastructure already in place, the rest of them are pretty crappy places. There’s really nothing to recommend living at the bottom of stupid gravity wells.
They don’t have atmospheres (or they do, and they are super-hazardous) — if you have to build a contained environment to live in, it might as well be in space away from planets. They require tons of energy to land on without smashing yourself apart, and then they require even more energy to take off from again — the vast majority of energy expended by moon missions is burnt in the first few miles getting away from the annoying pull of Earth’s gravity. The rest of the way is relatively smooth sailing. What’s worse, when they don’t have atmopsheres and have pesky gravity, this means they basically attract all kinds of interplanetary buckshot at you — there’s a reason the surface of the moon is pockmarked with craters. And even the gravity that exists is problematic — unless you get a planet that has similar-to-Earth values, people find it hard to work. But it’s trivial to make a space habitat have precisely the same effective gravity as Earth — just make it a cylinder and spin it at the right speed, then walk around the inner surface. Then, there’s the dust. Planets are not hospitable islands in the hazardous sea of space — they are obstacles to be avoided.
The one and only advantage that planets have over nice, empty space is mineral resources — and here, despite having tons of them, it’s still hideously expensive to have to lift them off the surface and back into space for transport home. It will be a very, very long time before we’ve mined Earth to an extent that it’s cheaper to get it from the moon. In fact, one of the only things silly space exploration shows on Discovery can come up with to mine on the moon is helium-3, which will be very useful… once we invent fusion power. And even in the case of moon-mining, it might be cheaper to just run out to the asteroid belt, which has all kinds of pre-chopped up chunks of ex-(pre?)-planets for mining. Once we get to the point where we’re desperately combing the solar system for mass, we should just blow up the planets to get at them, instead of going down to their icky gravity covered surfaces.
And finally, if we just have to go all Star Trek and explore these useless chunks of rock, let’s just do it with remote controlled robotic probes, like we’re doing with Mars right now. I don’t say this in order to protect our noble astronaut explorers, but rather because taking them (and all the equipment to keep them alive and useful for Science) along is energy-expensive and acceleration-restrictive — two things you don’t want when exploring space.
In watching some of the 40th anniversary stuff on TV, I saw one show that proposed that we should construct a moonbase so that we could set up solar cells there and then beam the power back to earth — clean power for everyone! They proposed to set up delicate and fragile solar panels amidst the horribly corrosive dust on the surface of the moon, to send gigawatts of power all the way from the moon to earth — instead of just putting the solar panels in nearby orbit around the earth, and just beam the power down from there. Insanity! Why are people so fixated on gravity wells?