Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Lou Friedman rants

On the current blog of the Executive Director of The Planetary Society, Dr. Louis Friedman rages against NASA’s new lunar architecture. Several points struck me reading this missive, but one paragraph in particular stands out:

In contrast to Mars, the Moon is dry -- and it is getting drier. New studies using Earth-based radar confirm that previously-detected hydrogen is probably not bound in ice. These new observations also show that measurements of hydrogen in the permanently shadowed areas (where theoretical analysis points to trapped ice) were about the same as in sunlit areas (where ice cannot possibly exist). Still, we hear many enthusiasts speak about lunar “resources,” ignoring both the science pointing to the absence of water and the complex engineering needed to extract resources from dry soil.

Virtually nothing in this paragraph is correct. The “new observations” mentioned refers to a paper by Don Campbell and colleagues in a recent issue of Nature (19 October, 2006; Vol. 433, p. 835-837.) They claim in this paper to have shown that “no thick sheets of ice exist on the Moon.”

Well, no one ever claimed that such sheets do exist. I review this claim and the true nature of the dispute about lunar polar ice in a recent paper at The Space Review. In brief, we simply don’t know yet whether ice is present in the polar dark areas or not. In a way, it’s irrelevant. The real attraction of the poles is not the putative ice, but the near-continuous sunlight. Unlike the rest of the Moon, where nighttime lasts 14 Earth days, the poles offer areas that are illuminated by the sun almost constantly. This allows long-term presence on the Moon and continuous, rather than batch processing of resources.

Friedman seems to think that extracting resources out of the “dry Moon” is impossible, while the allegedly “wet Mars” is presumably a paradise, in which straws stuck in the ground will gush water, manna, and quite probably oil. In fact, extracting and using resources from any extraterrestrial object is a difficult thing and a skill we do not yet possess. But acquiring such a skill is essential. If humanity is to have a future off this planet, we must learn to extract what we need from what we find in space, regardless of its physical state and concentration level.

A key activity on the Moon is answering the question, “Can we extract and use space resources?” It is a critical issue to the future of human spaceflight. And it will be a key set of objectives and activities on the Moon when people return there.

Friedman’s real beef is with the idea of “permanence” on the Moon. He fears an endless money commitment to a lunar base, detracting from his cherished goal of a manned Mars mission. He’s wrong on this, too and I’ll tackle that issue in my next entry.

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