Patricia Nell Warren

Going to the Moon and GLBT

Filed By Patricia Nell Warren | March 23, 2009 3:30 PM | comments

Filed in: Living, Politics, Politics
Tags: NASA, Obama support of space exploration

Amid all the noisy debates about how much we'll spend on bailouts, healthcare, education and war, NASA is quietly rocketing its way towards an $18.7 billion budget for 2010, which is $2.4 billion more than it got to spend in 2008 under President Bush. Our new chief of state evidently agrees with some leading conservatives on the full agenda that NASA plans -- not only climate-change research and safe retirement of the aging shuttle, but also returning to the Moon...and establishing a base on Mars as well. Obama's budget puts his personal stamp of approval on the idea of "exploring the mysteries of the universe."

What impact will this huge budget item have on Planet Earth? Especially the U.S.? I wonder. This is one of those issues, like the Wall Street meltdown, that are GLBT issues because they will impact our quality of life in ways other than civil rights. (Not to mention those of us who might be out astronauts if Obama follows through on his rumored intention to end DADT.)

I get it that NASA means thousands of U.S. jobs -- that it means a high-prestige goal for the improved science education that Obama would like to see in our schools. But getting Americans back to the Moon, and getting ourselves to Mars, ought to be back-burnered until we have a budget surplus. With so many citizens out of work and housing, and so many of us lacking healthcare, and two wars draining the country, and the threatened collapse of Mexico's government into drug terrorism becoming a possible third war right on our southern border, it's almost obscene to talk about a high priority on "exploring the mysteries of the universe."

What we need to solve is the "mystery of how to get our people employed and our country back to a budget surplus and a trade surplus again."

Star Drek

Now and then, I find myself arguing this subject with friends who are still starry-eyed over the idea of going into space.

Space travel has been an American dream ever since the 1950s, as movie and TV sci-fi hits fueled the fantasy that space travel would be a slam-dunk once we mastered a few technical tricks. The more politically minded of my pro-space friends remind me that the resources out there are alluring -- for instance, the Moon's abundance of helium 3, a non-polluting nuclear fuel. Think tanks have all kinds of plans for the Moon, including solar power stations that could operate 24/7, since the Moon keeps the same face turned to the Sun at all times. Movies like "Alien" and "Star Wars," with their cargo ships hopping from planet to planet, have somehow convinced a lot of us that space commerce would become as everyday as 16-wheelers on our freeways.

But space exploration confronts us with a finance gap that is light-years wide. It is dizzyingly expensive, and comes at a dizzying cost to any government that undertakes it, with dizzyingly costly accidents and technical failures along the way. If we think that Wall Street bailouts took a lot of billions, wait till we see the real-life trillions that it will surely take to maintain a few humans in a base on the Moon, let alone establishing anything liveable on Mars. It falls into a category with other grandiose projects that bankrupted nations -- like China's building a great trading fleet in the early 1400s, which left the Chinese empire flat on its back.

As for the idea of humanity moving permanently to a new home in space, I think that the average Americans who burble about this haven't thought seriously about what they're asking for, which is this: a few elite folks spending gazillions of dollars to bail out of Earth, leaving the rest of us here to choke on problems that never got solved.

The Soviet Syndrome

For a scary example of what happens to a government that puts space ambitions ahead of earth-bound needs, we can look at the Soviet Union.

Back in the 1960s when the Soviets launched the world's first manned flight, their space program may have brought them a fleeting public-relations victory. But, coupled with the USSR's massive military spending, especially the Soviet-Afghan war, the space program helped to drain vital resources away from the Soviet civilian economy. Result: a tragic deterioration of quality of life for its citizens that sparked a growing outrage. By the 1980s, the USSR was in such deep economic trouble that it had to cut back its space program. But the move came too late to stop the downward spiral.

After the USSR collapsed in 1989, and all its former members went their own way as independent countries, Russia established its own Russian Federal Space Agency, which has shaken hands with NASA in joint efforts around Mir and our own space station. How did Russia manage this seeming miracle of reviving their space program? Because In recent years the Russian economy rebounded, thanks to increased exports of their oil and gas, which provided some cash to spend on a planned Moon orbiter, as well as Venus and Mars probes. Russia aims to stake her legal claims to all those alluring resources out there in space, and this has the U.S. worried. But are things any better for the average Russian citizen these days? That's debatable.

My point is -- the resurrected Russian space program, and its bid to control lunar and Mars resources, came at the cost of the Soviet Union's very existence. Imagine the following parallel situation: the United States going through a similar crash-and-burn, with every state going its own way as an independent country. California would emerge as its own country, and would aim to launch its own space program to replace the old NASA. To do that, California would have to find resources to export, in order to end its horrific budget deficit and put together the spare cash for its aerospace industry to launch a space program. We might forget about environmental concerns and allow unlimited drilling for oil and gas along our shores. We might revive California's flagging agricultural engine by making it ever more corporate, high-output and export-oriented.

But the price of California's survival as an independent republic would come as a result of the vanishing of the U.S. Despite the ideological differences between the USSR and the U.S., this possible parallel should give us some food for thought.

I, for one, don't believe in pie in the sky -- in the fantasy of going somewhere else at the cost of saving our country here and now. For the time being, NASA's jobs and scientific resources should be kept focused on practical programs that benefit the more earthly and socially oriented of America's needs.

Current NASA budget overview


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I don't think that the US is going to split apart any time soon, but, just in case, those of us from inland states ought to get our fill of beaches before going to Florida requires a visa.

Patricia,
Well, this is an area that you may not have all the facts. No matter. First of all, if we look at what NASA spends in one year as a finite moment in time, then we get stuck in not seeing what benefits that we (humans) will get long after you and I are dead. I like to think forward and not just in the here and now. This small amount we are investing today in NASA (less then what AIG has gotten) is an investment in the future of our children and grand children, as much as improving their education, their health care and their safety. Simply because we don’t know what the future holds for us is no excuse to hide from it, or use cost to get there as an excuse to fear it.

Also, are you aware that Mars can be terraformed? The process would take several decades, but the science is all in place for it to happen. When we start to terraform Mars, we will also be finding ways to cut the greenhouse gasses here on Earth, because in order to terraform Mars, you have to create greenhouse gasses on purpose. Think of the possibilities of having another habitable planet a tiny distance away (in astronomical terms) for the expansion of knowledge and science that can help us find new ways to keep this economical issue from happening again. The wealth of knowledge cannot even be fathomed in today’s world. There is no shame in failure, but there is in failure to try. I want us to try.

Just some facts. Mars is about one fourth the size of Earth and has 1/3 the gravity. The atmosphere is made up of CO2 and there is more CO2 and water locked up in the poles and in the permafrost. That will be needed to help build an atmosphere that will support plant growth, while the oxygen locked in the iron oxide on the surface will help add oxygen to the atmosphere, and give us iron for building.

The planet’s surface is equal to the land mass surfaces here on Earth. The day is 24h, 36 m, 22.8 s long and is has a tilt on it axis that would give us seasons. The largest volcano in the solar system is on Mars, five times taller than Mt. Everest, with a base the size of Montana, and Mars has a canyon that is so big that if it was on Earth, it would split the US in half. These are just some of the facts I have memorized about the God of War. It shows that I know what awaits us when we get there, but the best part of what waits us cannot be measured in dollars and cents. I support expanding our knowledge and the money spent on NASA. And, more needs to be spent there.

A. J. Lopp | March 23, 2009 4:52 PM

According to a recent PBS NOVA broadcast about Mars, unlike the Earth, the Red Planet lacks a molten, circulating metallic core, and thus it does not have one dominating magnetic field --- in fact, it has many mini-fields covering its surface, similar to a little girl with her hair made up with many mini-pigtails.

Because there is no one, big magnetic field, it is easier for the sunlight to warm atmospheric molecules up to escape velocity. Without a magnetic field to get caught into, the molecules will fly out into space far more easily.

This is the theory about why Mars currently has no appreciable atmosphere --- and we must solve this problem if we want to re-generate a stable Martian atmosphere, or else we must find a way to continually replenish said atmosphere at a rate that is equal to its leakage into space.

A magnetic filed isn't the only factor about holding onto atmospheres. Part of Martian loss of atmosphere was the heavy volcanic activity in its early life, which forced a lot of gasses into space like a reverse vacuum cleaner. Hot gases shot into space, sucking air upward. The light gravity cause it to escape easier that way.

Creating an atmosphere in a mechanical way and in less than 100 years, it will take thousands of years to get to same level without any intervention. Factor in the plants and greenhouse emissions by people, along with replenishing techniques and you will have a "sea level" pressure on Mars at the same level as about a mile high on Earth for as long as the people can maintain it. You wouldn't create an atmosphere then walk away. It can work.

Oh yes, it probably can work! My point was simply that there are more factors re a Martian atmosphere than just how much sunlight heats its atmosphere, and how strong the gravity is.

It is also not absolutely necessary that the entire planet have an atmosphere. If we could manufacture huge geodesic domes on Mars, that could trap the needed "atmosphere" inside them --- although, that's more like giving Mars a spacesuit rather than an atmosphere.

These are the engineering concepts, I'm not addressing the economic matters that Patricia brought up. I have mixed feelings about it --- yes, we need to fix the problems here on Earth, but OTOH the space program (at least, the Moon and space station programs) is a relatively good bargain when you take into account all the scientific and technological innovation that it spawns --- and its a drop in the bucket when you compare it to trillion-dollar bank bailouts.

A.J.,
No matter how they end up doing it, I can say this for sure. I won't live long enough to us walk on Mars, much less settle there. (sigh) There is so much to see there.

We will have to agree to disagree on this one. Facts or no facts, I don't think that colonizing the Moon or Mars should be as high priority right now as fixing our broken country.

Like I said below, Monica, we'll have to agree to disagree. Colonizing in space may well be a worthwhile move, but meanwhile the money budgeted to be spent on that should be spent on meeting the urgent economic and personal needs of many Americans.

Patricia,
Okay, we agree to disagree on the usefullness of the Final Frontier.

I never said the Final Frontier isn't useful. I merely disagree that money should be spent on it now when there are more pressing human needs close to home.

One of the two "agrees to disagree" below should have been inserted here. Sorry.

A. J. Lopp | March 23, 2009 4:37 PM
But, coupled with the USSR's massive military spending, especially the Soviet-Afghan war, the space program helped to drain vital resources away from the Soviet civilian economy. Result: a tragic deterioration of quality of life for its citizens that sparked a growing outrage. By the 1980s, the USSR was in such deep economic trouble that it had to cut back its space program. But the move came too late to stop the downward spiral. After the USSR collapsed in 1989 ...

It bears mentioning that another major factor that bankrupted the USSR is that Reagan played chicken with them by instigating a crank-up of the nuclear arms race. He is considered a conservative hero today because his strategy worked: he literally out-spent them into bankruptcy.

But Reagan also set a precedent for the US, that a Republican administration would pursue massive deficit military spending in order to achieve an international goal. Every GOP president has followed this precedent (GHW Bush #41 being the least offender). This, plus the non-prevention of the current economic crisis by a GOP administration, nixes the GOP as "the party of fiscal responsibility." True, the build-up of the current national debt can be traced all the way back to the Vietnam War, but it ballooned like a python eating a piglet during the Reagan years.

Now, a technical nit-pick:

Think tanks have all kinds of plans for the Moon, including solar power stations that could operate 24/7, since the Moon keeps the same face turned to the Sun at all times.

Someone at that think tank needs to buy a set of good binoculars and stare at the moon each night for a month. The moon keeps the same face turned toward the Earth and any fixed point on its surface experiences about 14 days of daylight followed by about 14 days of night.

It would probably be a better plan to put two or three of those solar power plants in geosynchronous orbit around the Earth; the orbits could possibly be on a tilt so that the Earth's umbral shadow would miss the plant servicing the Earth's night side. It would still travel through the Earth's penumbral shadow, but the night side of the Earth hopefully might have a corresponding drop in demand for energy compared to its daytime demand.

A. J., I invite you to nitpick all you want on the think tank ideas, which I found on their websites. They are not my ideas.

On where the Moon faces, A.J. is totally right. Grade school kids know this. Just because it's on their web site doesn't change the Moon.

Don Sherfick Don Sherfick | March 24, 2009 3:47 PM

I'm all for further expoloration of the moon. It's the ultimate Green project.

That is if you like mountains of cheese.

But getting Americans back to the Moon, and getting ourselves to Mars, ought to be back-burnered until we have a budget surplus.

This is just the standard spending-isn't-stimulus trope.

Where I live NASA is just another local employer. If they don't have the money to do their work, then that hurts the local economy. The worse the local economy is hurting, the less likely it is to contribute to a situation where we once again have a federal surplus.

I'm a starry eyed explorer sort, who looks out into the heavens and says we must go thre, and also into the seas and says we must go there and well, generally, I support this sort of work.

And I disagree that surplus should be used on such -- that's a very simple way of viewing the economics of budget surplus and leakage, and how those numbers are arrived at.

The budget for NASA today is still less than one tenth what it was when we went to the moon. The benefits of research and development required to fund those things has an impact far greater than merely jobs and economic boosting.

Regardless of how we get there, at six and a half billion people, we ether need to engage in massive population reduction measures or find some place else.

Then again, there is a much deeper reason for my wanting us to return to the moon, and it has a religious source, and so I'll leave this post with:

Thank you for bringing this up, as the subject, regardless of how one falls in line with it, is of value.

Robert Ganshorn Robert Ganshorn | March 25, 2009 9:34 AM

As a use of money it is far more valuable for humanity for us to understand our oceans, ice pack melts, and carbon dioxide intrusion into deep waters. We know less about our oceans than the moon. Four fifths of our precious Earth is covered by water and 3% of it is drinkable. Placing solar panels on the moon pales to insignificance when compared to placing them in deserts.

As much as I like Star Wars I do believe we are taking a wrong direction in not better understanding the seas and the earth beneath our feet.

Thank you Patricia.

ALL scientific research is beneficial to the human race. To say that we should not do one over another is a bit short-sighted. That's just my opinion.