Jan 09 2011

Is the Moon a “Golden Oldie” or a “One Hit Wonder”?

Former NASA engineer Homer Hickam recently asked, “How about a Moon base?” (Wall Street Journal, 12/14/10).

In 1984, the great NASA Administrator during the first human missions to the Moon (1968-70), Tom Paine (left, w Pres. Nixon) said “The Moon will never motivate the American prople again.” Was he right? Is the Moon a One Hit Wonder?

The author of Rocket Boys (1998) and Back to the Moon (1999), Hickam feels that currently, NASA is up to … “Not much.” Because last year Obama sent

Mr. Bolden, the ex-astronaut, to Capitol Hill with a plan to cancel every one of NASA’s astronaut-related programs.

Hickham likes the Moon for all the usual reasons.

It’s close, it’s loaded with resources, and we can get there with existing technology.

Why not build a 21st century Moon base …

like the National Science Foundation’s South Pole Station, and invite the world to join us.

We’ll give our technological prestige a sorely needed boost, and something else will also happen: New and wondrous products based on NASA requirements for metallurgy, composite materials, solar arrays, computers and batteries will boost our economy, just as the technologies of the Apollo mission did.

Oh by the way, it won’t cost “vast amounts of money.”

Can you feel it?
That’s what we call ebullience” — the key driver of great explorations like Apollo, and macro engineering projects (MEPs) like the Panama Canal.

And Mr. Hickham, not surprisingly, has identified himself as among the elite early ebullients in the world today. We call them “early ebullients” because they are anticipating a trend that will sweep the world around 2015 — based on macroeconomic data and global trends over the last 200+ years — much like Apollo captured global headlines in the 1960s.

As an ebullience junkie myself, I personally find Hickam’s enhtusiastic Moon base idea almost irresistible. It’s spirit reminds me of the 1990 plan of Lawrence Livermore National Lab, “The Great Exploration Plan for the Human Exploration Initiative,” by three sensational physicists: Rod Hyde, Yuki Ishikawa, and Lowell Wood.

Speed was essential; the whole permanent base would take less than a decade to create, with its first inflatable hab modules in place on the Moon by 1997.

You’ve got to love their ebullient theme (circa 1990): “We already have in hand what we need for the Great Exploration of the inner solar system.” And the controversial cost estimate was great too — only $ 11 B — that’s less than $ 20 B in 2009 USD, compared to about $ 150+ B (2009 USD) for the entire Apollo program.

So simple, inexpensive starter-homes on the Moon are possible today. But the real question is: Will the American people get as excited about it as Homer and I are — or was Tom Paine correct?

This is where the long-term, empirical approach of 21stCenturyWaves.com can provide unique insights.

How Maslow Windows Work
Over the last 200+ years Americans and many others have gone exploring whenever they could afford it. These transformative, great explorations — always accompanied by MEPs and sadly punctuated by a major war — have clustered exclusively around rhythmic, twice-per-century major economic booms, such as the Kennedy Boom in the 1960s.

During the major booms, affluence-induced ebullience catapults many to higher levels in the Maslow hierarchy. Their momentarily expanded worldviews — due to elevated Maslow states — make great explorations and MEPs seem not only intriguing, but almost irresistible. Trends associated with these “Maslow Windows” provide insights to our future.

The chronology of great explorations is as follows:
Late 18th/Early 19th Century Maslow Window: Lewis and Clark
Mid-19th Century Maslow Window: Dr. Livingstone (equatorial Africa)
Early 20th Century Maslow Window: N and S Polar Expeditions
1960s Maslow Window: Apollo Moon missions

It’s clear that great explorations of new, interesting geographical sites progress from more-to-less accessible regions, consistent with the technologies of the times. For example, President Theodore Roosevelt could not outfit Adm. Peary to explore the Moon, but he did encourage him to reach the North Pole. And John F. Kennedy chose to go to the Moon — rather than Mars — because he thought it would be a challenging, yet doable global demonstration of America’s technology and economic system.

Where Will the Next Great Exploration Be?
A reasonable forecast for the next great human exploration during the 2015 Maslow Window would be Mars colonization. No one’s ever been there and it’s the next accessible (beyond the Moon) new site of interest. Plus it’s the most Earth-like world.

But suppost Mars colonization does not begin after 2015? What then?

Over the last 200+ years each Maslow Window has featured a “great exploration.” If the 2015 Maslow Window doesn’t have one it would be the first time in over 200 years that’s happened.

What about the Moon? We know it has major commercial and scientific potential, but could the Moon again have the power to rivet the attention of the global public like Apollo, the polar expeditions, Dr. Livingstone, and Lewis and Clark did generations before? Will the public see the Moon as an Earth-style “golden oldie” (i.e., a pleasant memory) with real potential for more excitement, or a “one hit wonder.”

Does the Moon Have the Right Stuff?
As we saw above, over the last 200+ years the great explorations on Earth opened up spectacular new geographic vistas through a succession of quantum leaps from Lewis and Clark to (ultimately) the polar regions. And like the Earth, the Moon has many tantalizing surface locations awaiting intrepid human explorers.

But here are 3 reasons why the Moon may become a “one hit wonder” and prove Tom Paine’s forecast correct.
1) The Moon is subtle. The Moon is a small, airless, dry (at least on the surface!), impact crater-dominated world with a month-long day-night cycle. It’s omnipresent shades-of-gray color scheme completes its alien, repetitive presentation, at least to public eyes.
2) Space technology and the “Been there, done that” Syndrome. Since the 1960s the Moon has been studied in surprising detail with satellite technology, and we have a fair idea of what’s there — at least on and near the surface. So relative to pre-1960s Earth — when many regions were truly unknown — robotic and human exploration of the Moon has accelerated our understanding such that it may not provide another riveting, Apollo-style transformative milestone for public enjoyment.
3) Apollo 11 was a hit. During the 1960s Apollo program the Moon was a One Hit Wonder. Although the first humans on the Moon (Apollo 11) made a big splash globally — as did Apollo 13 because lives were threatened — subsequent Apollo landings featuring spectacular geologic sites were greeted by an increasingly distracted public.

On the other hand, here are 3 reasons why the Moon might again acquire the wonder and excitement required for a great human exploration.
1) Star Trek — The Next Generation. A new generation of young people, who are unaware of Dr. Paine and did not personally witness Apollo, are increasingly excited about exploring and developing the Moon.
2) ISS and Interspace:. Many of these folks are in countries (like China and India) with growing space programs and dynamic economies. International cooperation and competition — based on the International Space Station model — may focus attention on lunar exploration starting from an Antarctica-style base like that advocated by Hickham.
3) “Potential for cultural shock and social disorientation…”. According to Dr. Heywood Floyd at the American lunar base in Clavius (“2001: A Space Odyssey”, 1968), describing the alien monolith recently excavated on the Moon. Anything even remotely like this and you know the answer.
Click 2001’s Monolith on the Moon

The Tentative Bottom Line
Based on its questionable ability to motivate, Apollo-style the new Space Age, the Moon is probably a One Hit Wonder, although it will become much more than just a Golden Oldie (a pleasant memory). Indeed, the Moon is a scientific bonanza and has long-term potential for multiple MEPs supporting its future role as a major commercial, energy, and tourist center.

But barring some civilization-altering discovery on the Moon, the next great exploration will likely be in the Mars system.

Two key indicators to watch are plans for an international Moon base and a successful Russian/Chinese Phobos-Grunt mission. They’re important because they point in different directions.

5 responses so far

5 Responses to “Is the Moon a “Golden Oldie” or a “One Hit Wonder”?”

  1. Scott P. Holmanon 02 Feb 2011 at 5:37 am

    Constantly, I see space enthusiasts forecasting that Mars will be the next big push in space exploration. This attitude seems to me to be based more upon romantic assumptions, traditional views, and esoteric science goals than sound forecasting. Mars has very little to offer the human race at this time, in terms of resources, easily uncovered knowledge, and inspiration. In regards to solving the question of life beyond Earth, we may as well decide that it exists, but we are not going to spend large sums of money trying to prove it. This position comes from the belief that discovering that there has been life on Mars in the past, or even presently, is not going to fundamentally alter any aspect of the human existence.

    What would bring about considerable change in the human existence would be the knowledge that there are people living and working somewhere other than on Earth. If a typical citizen knew someone who was related to a person who was living and working on the Moon, it would change that person’s perspective about the universe that they live in, by forcing them to accept that the Earth is not limitless, that it does not go on forever. Intellectually, we may acknowledge this fact, but emotionally, conceptually, few of us really think in terms of Earth being a small place in a vast void.

    The only heavenly body which literally anyone can identify, besides our local star, is the Moon. Even people who are interested in Mars can rarely locate it without a star chart, and to everyone else, it is just another little light in the night sky. There is no concept of ‘place’ associated with Mars, whereas there is with the Moon. It is a place that we can see, with surface features that are permanent.

    Space exploration is going to have to start being profitable in some way if we are going to continue sending humans into space. The cost of launching someone to 5 miles per second is too large to justify unless they are absolutely required to go. Our automated probes have become much more sophisticated and capable, which reduces the need for people on the spot.

    But opening up an industrial base off-planet will require engineers, scientists, technicians, pilots, cooks, and janitors. The Moon is a perfect source for raw materials, and provides a location where people can dig in to protect themselves from the powerful radiations from the Sun. This is a major stumbling block in planning long-duration missions, because radiation storms are deadly, and blocking the effects of radiation is very difficult for us right now.

    It will probably be a long time before anyone actually lives permanently in space, and colonies out there will not be sponsored by governments, in all likely hood. But space offers humanity a place where it can extract resources, process them, and harvest energy without jeopardizing our home planet. At the same time, immense amounts of wealth will be created out there, through new industries, technologies, and knowledge.

    Hi Scott,
    Thanks for your thoughtful comment, which I included here unedited.

    You remind me a little of the last conversation I had in the mid-1980s with the famous German rocket scientist Krafft Ehricke. He said the same thing about the Moon and its naked-eye appeal to people on Earth.

    I can’t agree with your assessment of Mars. Suggest you check out some of my posts and articles here on 21stCenturyWaves.com.

    Even more helpful to you would be the recent 1000-page NASA volume on Mars colonization that I mentioned in Point 1 in the recent 2011 Space Trends post.

    Best regards,

  2. Scott P. Holmanon 03 Feb 2011 at 10:03 pm

    To me, all of the speculation regarding our next target in space is immaterial until we can actually put people in space in realistic numbers, at realistic costs. Currently, we are in the infancy of launch technology, and getting people into space is difficult and costly. Our atmosphere poses huge challenges, because we cannot go fast until we go up a ways.

    Up until recently, there was no other way to go up and then go fast except using a rocket which takes off straight up. That is probably still the best way to launch large payloads, but when it comes to putting people into space, vertical launches may not be the way to go.

    We now have the technology to build a spacecraft that could carry a dozen people into orbit, and return them to Earth, taking off and landing horizontally. This would be a two stage system, with a carrier wing doing the heavy lifting to about 50,000 feet, and then the spaceplane would start its engines, fly off the back of the carrier wing, and accelerate to 5 miles per second.

    As long as the spacecraft is limited to carrying people, and is not required to achieve altitudes above 200 miles, we can build it small and light enough to be carried by a specially designed aircraft. All aircraft to date are built with going from one place to another, carrying their cargo inside a fuselage. By doing away with the fuselage, and putting the cargo outside, the amount of lift available is enormous. We have highly efficient turbofan engines that could overcome the drag this huge wing would generate, allowing it to climb to altitude in less than 90 minutes.

    In order to avoid having to build a massive undercarriage to support the weight of both fully-fueled vehicles, the stack would launch from a catapult, which also would supply the energy needed to get the stack traveling fast enough to take off. In this way, extremely long take-off rolls are avoided as well.

    Because this system does not involve taking off straight up, large, powerful rockets are not needed, nor is triple redundancy. Launches could be accomplished in most kinds of weather, and could be overseen by a handful of people, reducing launch costs by several orders of magnitude.

    Not until we can put substantial numbers of people into space in one operation are we likely to see any real progress on opening up the Solar System. Making the process as simple and safe as launching a 747 would bring the costs into realistic territory.

    Hi Scott,
    I enjoyed this comment also!

    But I question the last paragraph: I think you’ve identified a chicken and egg issue. Do we need to open of the solar system before we get more people into space or the reverse.

    I think we need to do both, although colonizing Mars, for example, doesn’t require large numbers of people in space initially. Although having that capability would create huge demand for routine access to space for many people.

    As we see in the current commercial space world, it’s the demand for services that opens up new vistas.

    Best regards,

  3. Scott P. Holmanon 15 Jul 2011 at 4:02 am

    With the retirement of the Space Shuttle, humanity is now dependent upon Russia for manned access to space, and their technology is only capable of launching 3 people at a time, one of whom must be the pilot of the capsule. Crew rotation at the International Space Station is going to require at least two launches every few months, and increasing the number of people working up there will demand even more launches.

    The launch systems that are supposed to replace the shuttle are still unproven, and only offer a few seats per launch. The private sector has thus far been unable to maintain a robust launch schedule, which means that acquiring a ‘man-rated’ status for a booster will take a long time.

    Right now, China is holding nearly 1 trillion dollars in United States Treasury bonds, which are on the verge of becoming worthless, if the U.S. congress cannot agree to raising the federal debt ceiling. Putting a fraction of that wealth to work to fund an international effort to develop a new technology to access space would guarantee that humans would continue to be able to leave Earth in the future, while creating high paying, long term employment for countries around the world.

    Currently, the world equities markets have a combined worth of over 6 trillion dollars. If the private sector could be convinced that spending money in space is worthwhile, the resources to solve the problems inherent in space exploration and development would be assured. But access to space will have to be much more reliable, cheaper, and able to support large enterprises if the private sector is to be persuaded to invest in space technology on a large scale.

    Although the California gold rush encouraged many people to set sail around the Horn to get there, real growth in California did not begin until the railroads were built. Right now, we need a railroad into space,

    Hi Scott,
    Originally the Shuttle was envisioned as being the initial “railroad” into space, but it didn’t work out that way.

    Speaking of China, they may become the key to our next Space Age, with their 9+ % annual growth. As I’ve mentioned here before in connection with Phobos-Grunt, combined with Russia, they could become the 21st century competitors to the U.S. in deep space.

    That’s a GOOD thing, by the way. If it turns out that we can’t get excited about cooperating in space beyond ISS, then having another Space Race is much better and faster than not going at all!

    Best regards,

  4. Clark Heckeron 22 Jul 2011 at 9:12 am

    Alas, the only real “railroad” to space is an orbital elevator–and I don’t see that happening in my lifetime, or even in my children’s, if it ever does. Until then, rockets (or perhaps railguns for some payloads) are the only game in town. Their hyperexpensive nature means that any talk of resource exploitation is hogwash. If you extracted any commodity from the moon (or anywhere else, for that matter) and tried to transport it to earth on a rocket, it would be orders of magnitude costlier than simply obtaining it on earth.

    As to looking to China, their current economic well-being is hollow and likely to be short-lived. They are destroying their arable land, their environment is a mess, and they are having to use land abroad because they cannot feed themselves. They are constructing thousands of huge, cheaply-built buildings in their new cities with no insulation and no prospect of energy efficiency when the crunch comes. I think that house of cards will crumble sometime in the next 25 years and give way to a much more sobering reality.

    Hi Clark,

    Agree about China. Even worse is their aging population. Stratfor continues to forecast a Japan-like economic collapse for China by 2015. That would be bad news for the U.S. and other major space powers because we have many common interests in space with China and we need them to be a strong collaborator, and in some cases even more importantly, a strong competitor.

    I think you might be surprised about the potential for near-term space elevator technology development. Click HERE. I expect to see major progress during the 2015 Maslow Window. BTW, nobody is talking at this point about importing commodities from the Moon to Earth (except maybe Helium-3) but using lunar resources in Earth-Moon space is still potentially attractive.

    Best regards,

  5. Scott P. Holmanon 22 Sep 2014 at 7:35 am

    Something which is usually overlooked when discussing the costs of utilizing resources from off planet is the rising cost of resource extraction here on Earth. Copper is in such demand that deposits under national parks are being considered for development, and a combination pit mine and underground mine is being proposed for an area in Alaska which is at the headwaters of the most prolific salmon spawning streams in North America.

    Environmental costs are escalating so rapidly that off-planet resources could become cost effective in less than 50 years. Especially for certain metals. The most likely source for off-planet resources looks to be asteroids, which offer us huge quantities of material floating in a free-fall environment.

    Energy is becoming more expensive and more challenging to collect. Oil extracted from fields three miles beneath a seabed that is two miles down is not going to be cheap. Energy-intensive industries are likely to feel the pinch over the coming years, especially in fields such as metal refining. Using solar power in space, where it is truly potent, would solve some of these problems.

    And we must keep in mind that more and more people are aspiring to a life style which requires far larger amounts of resources than they are currently consuming. The United States has been using nearly 1/4 of the energy consumed worldwide, yet we have a much smaller fraction of the world’s population. The same is true of many metals. How will we meet the demand as it grows and grows? Or will we give up the idea of living comfortably in exchange for merely surviving?

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