Friday, July 25, 2008

“Been there, done that” -- Space Policy Ipecac

The first NASA Lunar Science Conference is now concluded. On the first day of the meeting, Carle Pieters (Brown University) gave a talk summarizing the NRC report on the Scientific Context for the Exploration of the Moon. Although a straightforward summary, Carle used the phrase “Apollo was exciting... but been there done that” during her talk. Note well: she does not subscribe to this view, but it was picked up by the press and trumpeted in a wire story.

This phrase is not only offensive to the ears of working lunar scientists, it’s flat wrong in regard to a return to the Moon under the Vision for Space Exploration. During my talk immediately following Carle’s, I attempted (once again) to review exactly what the Vision means and why it was laid out the way it was (presentation posted here). I think that the fundamental problem comes from the idea that the VSE is “Apollo on steroids” or in fact, any reincarnation of Apollo at all.

If the mission of lunar return were to conduct Apollo-type sortie missions focused on lunar science, it would indeed have an “Apollo Redivivus” flavor. In fact, we are NOT going back to the Moon to fill in the blank pages in the notebooks of lunar scientists. As clearly laid out in the Vision for Space Exploration founding policy documents, the aim of a return to the Moon is to learn the skills we need to live on other worlds. Foremost among these skills is using the material and energy resources of the Moon to create new spacefaring capability. I cannot imagine a mission statement more antithetical to the trite and dismissive “Been there, done that.”

Of course, no one knows if using space resources is even possible. That’s exactly why it’s such an interesting mission – we don’t know the answer ahead of time. NASA’s job is not to industrialize the Moon – it’s to find out if the Moon can be industrialized. Such a challenge has never been attempted by any nation or entity, but it is a skill that we must master if we are ever to become a true spacefaring (and space-inhabiting) species.

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