Saturday, March 27, 2010

Moon shot

The US is not going back to the moon in the next 50 years.

As an engineer, it pains me to admit that.  I want a "reach for the stars" project (pardon the pun) that motivates and inspires an entire country -- heck, the entire world -- to want to be the next generation of scientists and engineers.  I want a focused, challenging program that requires a a few percent of the country's resources in order to make it happen -- and to be able to reap the benefits of the side technologies that must be created to support the greater mission.  For instance, teflon was invented during the Manhattan Project, as the K-25 engineers needed something that would withstand the corrosive effects of uranium hexafluoride.  We're still reaping the benefits of all the "side technologies" that fell out of the Apollo program.  I want to be able to point to something so that in 50 years we can look back and say, "See what our generation accomplished?"

But it won't happen in today's society.  We are a fundamentally reactive society, and the impetus just isn't there to do it.

Why did we go to the moon in the first place?  Because the Soviets had just cleaned our clock by launching Sputnik and then Yuri Gagarin into space.  An argument can be made that we could have beaten Sputnik into space -- Wernher von Braun was chomping at the bit to launch his Jupiter rocket -- but that government bureaucracy didn't want to take the risk of a high-profile failure.  Why did we develop the atom bomb?  A weapon of unspeakable terror, it also launched the nuclear power industry, but we started it because we were afraid the Germans (and possibly the Japanese) were going to get there first.

We reacted to get to the moon.  We reacted to split the atom.  GNP-sized projects like these don't spawn out of ambition; they spawn from necessity.

And so President John F. Kennedy made his famous declaration in 1961 that Americans would land a man on the moon and have him return safely by the end of the decade.  It was only with the specter of the Soviet Empire nipping at our heels that the US was able to dedicate the resources, funding, and drive that was necessary to make the goal of landing on the moon.  Sure, LBJ launched his Great Society during this period, and the entanglement in Vietnam grew larger and larger over the decade, but the continuous fear of the Soviets beating us to the next major target -- the moon -- was what allowed the US leaders to be able to divert something like 10% of the federal budget towards NASA's mission to the moon.

That can't happen today.  

President Bush made occasional headlines throughout the 2000s when he and then-NASA Administrator Mike Griffin established a plan to officially retire the Shuttle Transport System and develop the Constellation program that would get us back to the moon.  It was a longer term project, getting a person to the moon by around 2020, that would rely on generally well-established rocket technology.  But even that has suffered a demise in the Obama Administration, as the shifting economic winds force budgeteers to take a hard look at what can be funded and what cannot.  Today's astronauts are upset, and my heart goes out to them.

We can't honestly justify spending the hundreds of billions of dollars that will be necessary to go to the moon, when there are more pressing domestic and international needs that have to be tended to.  Many will argue that every billion dollars spent by NASA is a billion dollars that could be spent better elsewhere: education, health care, Social Security, paying down the national debt, rebuilding infrastructure … the list goes on and on.  

So, when the Cost Benefit Analysis inevitably gets developed for going to the moon, the cost will always be too high and the benefit will always be too low.  A cost benefit analysis is mutually exclusive with going to the moon; the social and political environment has to be such that performing a cost benefit analysis is unthinkable.

And the road to success with big projects like this is a bumpy one, fraught with failure.  Today's risk-averse society appears, to me at least, to be unwilling to accept the kind of risks that would be involved with a project like going to the moon again.  In January 1967, three prominent astronauts died in the tragic Apollo 1 fire during a drill on the launch pad.  The unmanned Apollo 4 (there was no Apollo 2 or 3) successfully launched in November 1967 - a scant 9 months later, and astronauts were pissed that it was unmanned.  For comparison, after the Challenger incident in January 1986, the next shuttle launch did not occur until September 1988,  full 33 months later.  Similarly, after the Columbia accident in January 2003, the next shuttle launch did not occur until July 2005, a gap of 30 months.  

So I don't look for innovation and inspiration to come from these huge, GNP-sized projects in my lifetime.  For better or for worse, I don't believe the geo-political forces are in play to support them.  Societies just won't stand for it while societies perceive better ways to spend the money.  In the meantime, we'll have to look to companies and smaller institutions to provide innovation and inspiration -- which may be no less impressive, but just on a smaller scale than going to the moon.

Incidentally, JFK is famously remembered for his prediction of getting a man on the moon by the end of the decade.  But that wasn't his only "by the end of this decade" prediction, and history has kindly overlooked his other predictions that did not come true.  At the University of Texas in 1963, JFK also predicted that the US would develop its own supersonic transport, that would compete with the UK & France's recently unveiled Concorde program, but fly at three times the speed of sound, not just twice the speed of sound like the Concorde.  Due to budget overruns and a general lack of support, this program was cancelled in 1971.  No prototype ever flew.

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