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Pence: We're going back to the moon . . . and beyond
We're not sure why.
The Trump Administration is not the first to vow that we would return to the moon decades after having done so the first time. George W. Bush said the same thing in one of his State of the Union addresses. It never happened, and I have no idea how serious he was about trying to make it happen, but the thought that we should do a moon landing sequel has been around for a while now.
Writing today in the Wall Street Journal, Vice President Pence has put a new moon landing back on the nation's agenda, calling it a strategic imperative even if he doesn't really explain just what the strategic importance of another moon landing would be:
More than ever, American prosperity and security depend on U.S. leadership in space. Yet national space policy often has lacked a coherent, cohesive vision. The results not only are disappointing; they endanger the well-being of the American people.
The U.S. pays Russia more than $76 million a seat to carry American astronauts to the International Space Station, since we have no vehicle capable of performing this task. The intelligence community reports that Russia and China are pursuing a full range of antisatellite technology designed to threaten our military’s effectiveness. These are only two examples of America’s abdication of leadership in space.
The president has charged the National Space Council with restoring that leadership. The council’s objectives are clear.
We will refocus America’s space program toward human exploration and discovery. That means launching American astronauts beyond low-Earth orbit for the first time since 1972. It means establishing a renewed American presence on the moon, a vital strategic goal. And from the foundation of the moon, America will be the first nation to bring mankind to Mars.
We will renew America’s commitment to creating the space technology needed to protect national security. Our adversaries are aggressively developing jamming and hacking capabilities that could cripple critical military surveillance, navigation systems and communication networks. In the face of this threat, America must be as dominant in the heavens as it is on Earth.
We will promote regulatory, technological, and educational reforms to expand opportunities for American citizens and ensure that the U.S. is at the forefront of economic development in outer space. In the years to come, American industry must be the first to maintain a constant commercial human presence in low-Earth orbit, to expand the sphere of the economy beyond this blue marble.
I guess the idea is that much of this jamming and hacking technology is space-based, or at least involves interaction with space in some way, and therefore we're at a disadvantage if we don't have the ability to get ourselves into space and to operate there independently. That makes some sense, and I guess I can understand why we'd rather be able to get ourselves to the International Space Station than have to hitch rides with the Russians like we're doing now - especially at $76 million a seat, although I wonder what it would cost us to develop our own transport capabilities.
It makes sense that there is some research and technology development work that you can do better when you can make your way beyond the Earth's atmosphere. But I still don't quite see why we need to go back to the moon, nor do I understand what we think we're going to discover if we expand manned exploration deeper into space. We've already learned a great deal from unmanned crafts that have landed on Mars and have traversed the deepest reaches of the solar system. What greater benefit would we realize from manned expeditions?
It's always been enticing to think about actually going to Mars, although current technology limits seem to suggest that anyone who volunteers to go there will have no practical way of getting back. I'm sure there are people who are up for that adventure, but do we have any real, fact-based notion of what we gain as a nation from sending them there?
Beyond that, what? You can't land on the gaseous plants of Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune, even if it was possible to survive there (which it's not). I'd be as interested in seeing the images taken by a real person with a real camera as anyone else, but is whatever we would learn from this worth the cost of doing it? (Also, how do you equip a spacecraft with enough food and drink for the length of time it would take to get there? I'm not saying there isn't an answer. I'm just curious about what it is.)
I have some sympathy for the impulse to see the nation do something great at a time when it seems like we can't balance a budget or fix the tax code. But honestly, I'd rather balance the budget and fix the tax code than go to the moon again. It would surely be cool to see it (I was only 2 the first time), but we have imperatives of much greater impact that we can and should be pursuing. This sort of feels like a case of, "We can't do the things we're supposed to be doing, so let's do this."
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