Monday, February 1, 2010

Say Goodbye to the Moon

(Picture from here.)

President Obama's budget is out today and, sad to say, he has gutted NASA's manned space program. (See here or here or check out the Wall of Idiots below.)

NASA and manned spaceflight has been a political football since before Obama was born. I expected better of him but I'm not surprised. After all, why shouldn't they fight over .5% of the national budget? (Total budget, 3.83 trillion. NASA budget 19 billion.) Clearly, when we put a man on the Moon and spent 5.5% (1966 here) we were clearly spending too much. At least 11 times too much, according to this budget.

My own opinion will not be a surprise to my two readers: if manned spaceflight is worth doing at all, it's worth doing right. The best first step would have been a medium to high earth orbit station with significant infrastructure to back it up. We didn't get that-- we got the International Space Station, a low earth orbit station who needs to be boosted it up regularly since it is being slowed down by atmospheric friction. (See here.) What we needed to learn from a space station was how to build and construct things in space. What we learned was how to put together a Lego station essentially assembled on earth.

Okay. Breathe. That ship has sailed.

Regarding the Moon: If we intend to do deep space manned missions, we need the Moon. To get to the Mars we need a heavy lift vehicle that will get a good sized payload completely out of Earth's gravity well-- Surprise! We need it for the Moon, too. To land humans on Mars-- or any other body with significant gravitation-- we need to know how to get there safely, how to live there safely until return, and how to return. All of this could be learned on the Moon with a 2.5 second light delay and a three day rescue mission.

But forget that for the moment. I said we need the Moon base. Hell, we need Luna City: a true colony on the Moon. Luna City would be closer in time than the American colonies were to London. So we can have all of the hard vacuum and experimentation we want (which we do not have with the ISS) along with real radiation shielding and gravity that might well be enough not to steal months and years of life from the inhabitants.

Forget even that. We need the Moon because it makes real exploration and utilization of the rest of the Solar System possible-- which, I submit, is impossible when transiting directly from Earth. The moon has about 17% of the gravity of earth. Launches from there are trivial compared to here. Toxic material? Not a problem. No environmental catastrophe on the Moon.

In addition, we can finally separate the cost of take off from the payload. The idea of an electromagnetically propelled launch system has been around since the forties. (See a patent here. Additional info here.) The idea is to transfer motion energy to a payload using ground based systems. Right now, a rocket has to carry its own fuel to lift the payload. This puts the launch system in the unenviable position of carrying the weight of the fuel to lift the payload and the parasitic weight of the fuel to lift the fuel. Does this seem smart? A better solution is to accelerate the payload and then leave the means of that acceleration behind. Only the mass of the payload is launched.

Why not do it here on earth? Several reasons: 1) is that pesky gravitational field again. It's a lot easier on the Moon. 2) There's vacuum on the Moon. Consequently, there's no loss due to friction. Not only do you need less energy to launch, launching is more efficient. 3) Energy is cheap. On earth you can get about 10 watts of solar radiation per square foot. On the Moon, it's about 130 watts/square foot.

What's needed on the moon? Smelting facilities. Factories. Heavy industry. I'm not talking about some six man habitat. We don't need ISS on the moon; we need Detroit.

This is an expensive undertaking but the very first step is to put a small manned base on the Moon.

Which Obama cut today.
Wall of Idiots
Rhode Island Supreme Court and toxic torts
Grounding NASA

Links of Interest
The lineage of theropods
Stratospheric water and climate change
Laser fusion test results
Making stars
News (and retrospective) of a film adaptation of John Carter of Mars. And here.


  1. I agree mostly..

    But I would suggest that a 20-30km high tower is, IIRC, possible with today's building technologies. Build a vertical railgun up the middle of such a tower, evacuate it to a decent vacuum, and you have something that can launch decent payloads at a fair rate. If you were were being posh, you would have non-manned high-g tube for bulk materials, and a low-g manned tube to assist the launch of manned craft, which would still need rocket assist, but starting at 20km altitude with a decent amount of velocity would simplify the problem. As would having space supply dumps.

  2. Correct. However, you still have that huge gravity well to overcome.

    I'm not so sure a 20-30 km tower on earth is actually any less difficult than doing the same thing on the moon. The earth has weather and that (previously mentioned)gravity well.