I’m sure anyone possessing the wherewithal to read this post is already well-aware from my fellow blogosphere cohorts that today marks the 40th anniversary of Apollo 11’s legendary lunar landing. You can follow the re-creation of this event on Twitter, or head straight to the NASA site dedicated to the event’s minute-by-minute playbook. Dr Phil Plait – the creator of Bad Astronomy – relates his thoughts on the legacy of the moon landing to his own life. You can even check out the latest results of NASA’s effort to restore the high-definition videos of the moon landing.
And to think, 40 years later, the computers that run our iPhones are more powerful than those that ferried to the moon the closest physical manifestations of our American ideals.
My humble $0.02 contribution to this phenomenal event in history (which I do kind of agree should be a national holiday!) is more food for thought: where do we go from here?
There isn’t an easy answer.
First, the three major viewpoints (of which there are hundreds) vote for one of the following: return to the moon, head for mars, or retire the space program.
The first two involve a discussion of priorities, resources, and ultimate goals. What are we trying to achieve? What makes the most sense in the short term? It’s fairly logical to assume that, with a functioning space program for decades to come, we’ll visit both (and probably set down more permanent establishments) eventually.
In this regard, it is my humble suggestion that NASA continue its Constellation Project and construction of the Orion spacecraft (and Ares booster engines) as a precursor to setting up a more permanent establishment on the moon. Meanwhile, astronauts can train for Mars missions and research can continue in terms of the vehicles that will ferry them to and from the red planet. Research gleaned from a permanent lunar facility will most likely advance our understanding of human’s adaptation to the harsh conditions of space and result in breakthroughs that will significantly improve the feasibility of voyages to and from Mars.
Of course, this does incur significant costs; space exploration and research isn’t cheap. And this is where the third demographic comes in: why should we even continue this line of investment?
I had this discussion with a good friend of mine this past weekend, and for those who earnestly believe we have bigger fish to fry at the moment, the argument is a difficult one to make – why indeed should we continue to pour billions of dollars into an area of research that, while it does have its payoffs, they are few, far between, and often accidental? In a field where the majority of the research is done for its own sake, why should we pay for it when health care, education, and the current recession are arguably more pressing and immediately applicable to citizens everywhere?
It’s a difficult argument to make; this field doesn’t lend itself to a lot of concrete results. There will be tangible dividends once we’ve set up lunar and Martian bases, but those are many decades away.
I would argue this: look no further than the effects of the lunar landing, which came at a time that, I would argue, was even more dire than the one we currently find ourselves in.
While there are eventually tangible effects, I would argue that the pride, the feeling of wonderment and accomplishment, and the unity we all feel as tiny humans in a big, scary universe setting out to learn more about it more than make up for perceived loss of investment.
Happy 40th moonwalk anniversary!
NASA has released the source for the Apollo Guidance Computer under an open source license. At the time, it ran on a 1MHz computer with 2K of RAM; quite a machine for its time! I have to say, I am thrilled at the prospect of being able to comb through some of the most bug-free code ever written. 😀