(Picture from here.)
There's been a lot of buzz from Buzz Aldrin saying we should punt the Moon and go to Mars.
I figured both of my readers might like to know my opinion.
I think, first, we should do both: go to the Moon and go to Mars. But in that order.
There are a lot of problems to overcome for the Mars trip. The biggest one, I think, is radiation. The reason we didn't worry about it with Apollo was 1) the duration was relatively short and 2) we didn't know then about the bad effects of low level exposures.
But there are other problems: long term, unsupported space travel, long term, unsupported habitation in an extraterrestrial environment, management of equipment over time, long term exposure to weightlessness, etc. Wouldn't it be nice if we could investigate these issues close by?
Oh, wait: we can. On the Moon.
The Moon is a much harsher environment than Mars. There is no atmosphere to speak of. The days are two weeks long-- or perpetual, if you settle on the poles. All of the issues that we must handle for a trip to Mars can be investigated and perfected on the Moon, with the added advantage that if things go south we can come home in a week.
I think Aldrin's (and others) preoccupation with exploration is a holdover from the sixties. It's not enough to go someplace and investigate it-- we've done that. I'm not even so clear that exploration on Mars by humans is superior to landing robots there.
What we need to do is propagate humans off of earth. We need a spacefaring civilization.
To do that we need not only to visit space but live there. Living there is what we need to learn. Living includes industry, commerce, self-sustenance-- all those things we should learn on earth but haven't bothered to since it's so cheap to go across the world and get them.
Besides, on the Moon there are a number of opportunities the scope of which we have not yet managed.
We have unlimited hard vacuum on the moon. What can you do with a vacuum tube the size of the empire state building?
Dig down a bit and you can find temperatures below that of liquid nitrogen. This means that we can have systems built on "high" temperature superconductors without having to cool them.
Two weeks out of the month (or more at the pools) we have unlimited solar power. I mean a lot of power. Here on earth, we get at most 10 watts/square foot. In space (and the moon) we get about 130. Every second. A square collector 88 feet on the side gives you a megawatt. Melting iron slag takes 209kJ/kg. So a megawatt could melt a little less than 5 kg of iron/second. Or more if it takes longer. Doing it in a vacuum is the easiest way to do it.
The only real question about going to the Moon, and living there, is why wait?
And why have we waited so long?
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