Monday, July 20, 2009

Remembering Apollo 11  

Today marks the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing.

I hope you're listening to the mission audio, or following the JFK Presidential Library's webcast. The landing itself will be replayed at 4:17pm EDT, and Neil Armstrong's first steps should be at 10:56pm EDT. NASA has been doing a number of things for the occasion, including releasing some very cool photos from orbiters which show the Apollo landing sites as they exist today.

The anniversary is getting a lot of attention this year. It's on magazine covers, it's on TV, and there's an undercurrent of buzz among my geek friends about it.

So I figured I'd take a break from my usual hectic schedule of "not blogging" to share some thoughts.

The first-time cost

Going to the moon was fantastically expensive.

Just think: landing on the moon required an absolutely unparalleled effort. It required the US to bring together technology, manufacturing, research, money, management, a boatload of sciences (psychology, physiology, physics, chemistry, materials, culinary, more), training, politics, leadership, public relations, the military, hard work, and a bottomless amount of determination.

The men who walked on the moon did so at the pinnacle of an enormous pyramid of marshaled resources — virtually the entire resources of a nation, bent to a single purpose. And they did it all with 1960's technology, in a spacecraft that had less computational power than your phone does today. (Heck, probably less than your refrigerator.) This is the stuff of which legends are made.

That pyramid of resources was amazing — and fragile.

We got to the moon and it was pretty freakin' cool. But it wasn't cool enough.

Snapping back

After getting there the first time, we just kind of stopped. The last mission that landed on the moon was Apollo 17 in 1972, just a few short years after the first one.

Why? Well, the moon just wasn't that interesting.

Hang on, I'd like to clarify that. In fact there's a ton of interesting stuff on the moon. But it's probably fair to say the cost of that vast, overreaching pyramid of resources was greater than the return we were getting back.

The truth is that the moon really didn't have anything that 1970's America really needed; no useful minerals, no water, no oil, and we can't even live there. So it makes sense that after briefly overreaching ourselves just to get there, that there would be a period of time where the pendulum swung back: where we'd stop going entirely.

But there is one key thing to remember. It's not 1970 any more.

What a difference 40 years makes

The cost of everything trends downward over time. Or you can put it another way: our civilization gets comparatively wealthier over time, so that a constant cost eventually becomes much more affordable. It doesn't really matter which way you want to look at it, since they're two sides of the same coin.

In the 1960's the cost of putting a man into space — not just the raw materials and rockets, but the entire infrastructure — was so large that it could only be attempted by the world's largest industrial powers.

In the 2000's we've seen the cost fall to the point where it just takes the resources of a single large corporation. In the next two years we should see commercial sub-orbital space travel offered by Virgin Galactic. And you can bet Virgin will have competitors before long.

Space travel isn't quite "cheap", but it's getting surprisingly affordable. It won't be long before we're back at the moon. In fact, I'll go so far as to make a few easy predictions:

A man will walk on the moon again by 2019. That's less than ten years, so on or before the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11. NASA has a plan to do it, and so do the Chinese. Barring bureaucratic screwups, another Great Depression, or the singularity, it seems very likely.

A woman will walk on the moon by 2019. The title of "first woman on the moon" is still wide open, and there's no shortage of talented female astronauts. It's an easy bet that the first return mission will include one.

What can the moon offer us now?

Why would we go back, anyway? Science-fiction fans will have no shortage of ideas about the long-term future, but I find it more interesting to consider the short term — because that's really where the rubber meets the road.

What are the realistic, short-term benefits that we might get from the moon when we go back?

A few thoughts:

  • Tourism. We already have space tourism, where rich people pay millions of dollars simply to go into space. Once commercial spaceflight takes off — and Virgin Galactic plans its inaugural flight within just two years — how long do you think it'll be until someone wants a tour of the moon?

  • An outpost. Rather like McMurdo Station in Antarctica, an outpost on the moon would be a center for scientific research and exploration, as well as a central base for other activities.

  • Mining, and ultimately manufacturing. Silicon, aluminum, and iron are probably the most useful and easily-extracted resources in the short term. (Many people talk about Helium-3, but it's not currently exploitable so I'm leaving it off.) But why would we mine the moon for this stuff instead of getting it from Earth? It's useful, but not exceptionally scarce.

    The answer is really that it's about relative scarcity. These raw materials are not exceptionally scarce here on Earth, but they sure are hard to come by up in orbit!

    It's a question of cost again. It's expensive to get things out of the earth's gravity well. If you want something even moderately large on the moon or in space — habitats, satellites, ships, mirrors, radiation shields — it may be cheaper to build it in place, with materials from the moon instead of from Earth.

I'd guess that these things are likely to happen in roughly that order: Tourism first, because there is a huge pent-up demand. This will be followed soon afterward by a small outpost — mostly for research, but also supporting (and partially funded by) tourism. And finally the mining and manufacturing, which can then can be used to build up the outpost even more.

Even though we've gotten used to space travel as a NASA thing, it's possible these may not be governmental projects at all, or they may be hybrid ventures which are part commercial and part subsidized. Either way, the feeling that the pendulum is finally swinging back is terrific. I can't wait!

Now it's your turn. What do you think the moon will have to offer us during the 2020's?