Friday, December 15, 2017

President Trump Directs NASA to Return to Moon

On Monday, President Trump signed a space policy directive ordering NASA to send humans to the Moon and eventually to Mars. For manned space exploration enthusiasts, this is the first bit of good news to come about in over a decade since when then-President Bush created the Constellation Program, which sought the same goal by 2018, which is now weeks away.

Hopefully, this plan will not be killed after Trump leaves office in the way former President Obama killed Constellation after he took office because this plan makes a lot of sense.

After killing Constellation, supposedly due to timetables not being met and cost over runs (since when has money been a concern for government), Obama set us on an aimless course into the cosmos. The plan: go to an asteroid to prepare for a Mars mission. This later morphed into a ludicrous mission of towing an asteroid into low-Earth orbit to make training easier before going to Mars. 

Besides being completely impractical with today's technology, going to an asteroid to prepare for Mars is the dumbest idea in the history for space exploration.. Why? The two bodies are nothing alike. Mars has the gravity equivalent to about 38% of that of Earth, meaning a 100 pound human would weigh 38 pounds on Mars. The largest asteroid, now officially 'dwarf planet,' Ceres, is only 2% that of Earth. The smaller moon of Mars, Deimos? Try 3/1000th that of Earth. As for an asteroid small enough to be towed to Earth? Infinitely smaller.

This begs a question: why on Earth would you practice for a mission to a body that has 38% of Earth's gravity on a body that may have 1/10,000th of Earth's gravity? Duh, you don't.

As for the Moon, it has about 16% of Earth's gravity which, though still less than half of that of Mars, is still way better than an asteroid because going to an asteroid (wherever it is) and then straight to Mars isn't really practice because the two are so different. By going to the Moon first, testing equipment for exploration, housing, and growing food makes a lot more sense because of the Moon's greater size. 

Additionally, NASA can set up long-term expeditions to the Moon much in the way it does the ISS to make absolutely positively sure that everything works without fail so that when we finally do go to Mars, we know that the equipment will work. If something were to go wrong, it is much better to be 3 days away from Earth than a minimum of 4 months away from Mars (Mariner 7 made the trip in just 128 days while Viking 2 took a snail's pace 333, roughly 11 months).

The president is right: America needs to take bold steps to reassert its dominance in space. Hopefully Congress will agree and pony up the cash needed to do so. If Congress goes along, Trump will be remembered as the 21st century Kennedy, not as every president from Johnson to Obama. Remember, if JFK had lived to serve two terms, we would have been on the Moon just months after he had left office.

The Space Race of the 60s proves that we are capable of great things when we try. Hopefully we will be willing as a nation to do it again with the same drive of half a century ago.