Friday, April 16, 2010

The tired, totally irrelevant "been there" thing

"We've been there before. Buzz has been there."

Paul D. Spudis

The Once and Future Moon
Smithsonian Air & Space Blogs

During a carefully staged appearance at Kennedy Space Center yesterday, President Barack Obama rolled out his plans for the U. S. space program. Although there weren’t many surprises (the White House Office of Science and Technology, under the direction of John P. Holdren, had released a fact sheet days earlier outlining details), one startling part of the speech was that we are abandoning the Moon as a goal. Though hinted at in several statements by people around the President, including NASA Administrator Charles Bolden and Apollo 11 Astronaut Buzz Aldrin, a path away from human return to the Moon is now officially the direction of Obama’s space policy.

Given the topic of this blog, it shouldn’t surprise many of you to learn that people are calling and writing me, asking for my reaction to the new policy. Although it wasn’t much of a surprise, it is disappointing to me, but not for the reasons you might suspect.

"Given the real and potential benefits of lunar return, the question is no longer “Why the Moon?” but “Why bypass the Moon?” I’m glad that “Buzz has been there” but that fact is irrelevant to either the value or the desirability of lunar return."
The speech detailed aspects of the administration’s new space budget, which will eliminate Project Constellation, contract with commercial entities for human transport to LEO, and spend money for development of new technology so as to “revolutionize” our access and capabilities in space. The Moon was finally mentioned near the end of the speech and I felt it would be fitting to use the President’s own words as the title for this post, and then give my views of the Moon’s place in the template of space exploration.

I’ve heard the “been there” line many times since 2004 when President George W. Bush announced the Vision for Space Exploration, so hearing it one more time was not a particularly jarring experience. But stop for a moment to consider exactly what President Obama said. Lunar return critics give many reasons to NOT go to the Moon: they think that it’s scientifically uninteresting, it doesn’t contain what we need, it will turn into a money sink (preventing voyages to many other destinations in space – perhaps one on their list), that there are more pressing needs here on Earth, and I’m sure others that I haven’t yet heard. But this new space policy rationale is unique and carries with it different and significant implications for our nation’s exploration of space.

We have now added a new requirement for U.S. space missions – we must go to a place never before visited by humans. Of course, some will argue that such a concept is implicit in the word “exploration” but until recently, exploration encompassed a much wider concept where exploration was followed by exploitation and settlement by many people from many walks of life using many different skills toward a myriad of goals. I wonder if supporters of this new space policy have stopped to consider the implications of the “not been there” requirement. The new meaning of exploration contains within it the seeds of its own termination: after you’ve touched the surface, planted a flag, and collected some rocks or deployed an instrument, that destination is “done.” Or does such a formulation apply only to the Moon?

One of the biggest criticisms hurled at Project Constellation is that it is largely a grandiose repeat of the Apollo explorations of the Moon undertaken over 40 years ago. Certainly, as had been outlined by NASA, lunar return consisted of sortie missions that landed crews all over the Moon to do local field exploration. Such a mission template is indeed Apollo writ large. But that is not and was never the intent of lunar return under the Vision for Space Exploration which is now under assault. Constellation was largely NASA’s rocket development program, while the Vision for Space Exploration was strategic direction outlining a sustainable lunar return, whereby we would bootstrap our way “beyond” by learning how to use the resources of the Moon and other bodies.

So let me respond to the President’s new plan by reminding the readers of this column why the Moon is our goal and of its significance and value to space exploration.

It’s close. Unlike virtually all other destinations in space beyond low Earth orbit, the Moon is near in time (a few days) and energy (a few hundreds of meters per second.) In addition to its proximity, because the Moon orbits the Earth, it is the most accessible target beyond LEO, having nearly continuous windows for arrival and departure. This routine accessibility is in contrast to all of the planets and asteroids, which orbit the Sun and have narrow, irregular windows of access that depend on their alignment with respect to the Earth. The closeness and accessibility of the Moon permit modes of operation not possible with other space destinations, such as a near real-time (less than 3 seconds) communication link.

"The new meaning of exploration contains within it the seeds of its own termination: after you’ve touched the surface, planted a flag, and collected some rocks or deployed an instrument, that destination is “done.” Or does such a formulation apply only to the Moon?"
Robotic machines can be teleoperated directly from Earth, permitting hard, dangerous manual labor on the Moon to be done by machines controlled by humans either on the Moon or from Earth. The closeness of the Moon also permits easy and continuous abort capability, certainly something we do not want to take advantage of, but comforting to know is handy until we have more robust and reliable space subsystems. If you don’t believe this is important, ask the crew of Apollo 13.

It’s interesting. The Moon offers scientific value that is unique within the family of objects in the Solar System. The Moon has no atmosphere or global magnetic field so plasmas and streams of energetic particles impinge directly on its surface, embedding themselves onto the lunar dust grains. Thus:

The Moon contains a detailed record of the Sun’s output through geological time (over at least the last 4 billion years). The value of such a record is that the Sun is the principal driver of Earth’s climate and by recovering that detailed record (unavailable anywhere on the Earth), it can help us understand the details of solar output, both its cycles and singular events, throughout the history of the Solar System. Additionally, because of the Moon’s ancient surface and proximity to the Earth, it retains a record of the impact bombardment history of both bodies. We now know that the collision of large bodies has drastic effects on the geological and biological evolution of the Earth and occur at quasi-regular intervals. Because our very survival depends on understanding the nature and history of these events as a basis for the prediction of future events, the record on the lunar surface is critical to our understanding.

A radio telescope on the far side of the Moon can “see” into deep space from the only platform in the Solar System that is permanently free from Earth’s radio noise. The Moon is a unique, rich and valuable scientific asset.

It’s useful. In my opinion, this is the most important and pressing argument for making the Moon our first destination beyond LEO. Because of the detailed exploration of the Moon undertaken during the last 20 years, we have a very different understanding of its properties than we did immediately following Apollo. Specifically, the Moon has accessible and immediately usable resources of both energy and materials in its polar regions, something about which we were almost completely ignorant only a few years ago. For energy, both poles offer benign surface temperatures and near-permanent sunlight, as the lunar spin axis obliquity is nearly perpendicular to the plane of Earth’s orbit around the Sun. This relation solves one of the most difficult issues of lunar habitation – the 14-day long lunar night, which challenges the design of thermal and power systems. In addition, once thought to be a barren desert, we have recently found that the Moon contains abundant and accessible deposits of water, in a variety of forms and concentrations. There is enough water on the Moon to bootstrap a permanent, sustained human presence there. Water is the most important substance to find and use in space; not only does it support human life by its consumption and provision of breathable oxygen, in its form as cryogenic liquid oxygen and hydrogen, it is the most powerful chemical rocket propellant known. A transportation system that can routinely access the lunar surface to refuel, can also access all of cislunar space, where all of our national strategic and commercial (and much of our scientific) assets reside (many satellites reside above LEO and are inaccessible for repair). Such a system would truly and fundamentally change the paradigm of spaceflight and can be realized through the mining and processing of the water ice deposits near the poles of the Moon. Space exploration should be a driving force in our economy not merely a playground for scientists or a venue for public entertainment.

Given the real and potential benefits of lunar return, the question is no longer “Why the Moon?” but “Why bypass the Moon?” I’m glad that “Buzz has been there” but that fact is irrelevant to either the value or the desirability of lunar return. By proposing to eliminate the Moon as a destination, the President has fundamentally altered the societal value of the space program in a significant and qualitatively different way.

If our new space program is to be made into a simple instrument of public spectacle (“cheap thrills” and “colossal feats,” as variously reported by news columnists) with each new mission requiring a “series of ‘firsts’ to engage and excite the public”, it will no longer have any more real long term benefit to our national security and wealth than did the bread and circus shows that heralded the demise of ancient Rome. Yes, there were and will be some exciting spectacles. And when such events are finished, people turn away and go home – none the wiser, none the richer, and none the better off. We won’t be staying at any destination long enough to fully characterize it and use what it has to offer.

Is this the kind of space exploration we want?

The seeds of the termination of our national space program were planted yesterday in Florida.

Dr. Paul D. Spudis is a Senior Staff Scientist at the Lunar and Planetary Institute in Houston. His opinions are his own and do not reflect the views of his employer or the Smithsonian Institution.


Jim Gagnon said...

Don't get me wrong, the "been there, done that" grates on me as well when people speak of why they would rather not go to the Moon first, but you have to understand that this is simply a short phrase to represent a complex set of feelings amongst young people today. They feel as if they've lived in the shadow of the baby boomers and greatest generation all their lives, and yearn for a way for them to step out of their shadows, to show the world that they are capable of the greatness that marked the American experience all throughout the 20th century. Landing men on the Moon, or even building the first permanent base on the Moon doesn't do that; however, being the generation that sets foot on the first planet besides Earth does.

It's more than simply stepping out of the shadows; landing on Mars and establishing a base there also salves that impending sense of apocalypse and doom that many of the young have. They feel, with reason, that a long term human presence is more likely on Mars than the Moon, and want to establish the capabilities to go there. While I'm a Moon first person, I understand their feelings and want them to help our efforts in space. I recognize that if we are able to travel to and land on Mars, that a follow-on effort to the Moon will not only be easier than it is now, but cheaper.

For me, the goal of the new NASA should be to establish a permanent presence and capability in space; With the VSE, the Moon as a first goal was dictated to the American people. The young in this country would find Mars as a goal easier to support, and if that's what it takes to step out in space and stay, then I can support that as well. Your comment about the "seeds of the termination of our national space program were planted yesterday" was over the top and something I would expect to see on the Fox network, not a forward looking blog such as Lunar Networks.

Joel Raupe said...

Jim, thanks for your comments and kind words. It's appreciated. Lunar Pioneer's reason-for-being, however, is lunar exploration, for reasons very much in line with Spudis' outline. I disagree that his summation was much over the top, especially if the discussion turns to generational feelings. With less bona fides we're also asked to comment about the administration's proposals that Congress scuttle Constellation, in general, but more frustrating a proposal to set aside from the national agenda manned exploration of the lunar surface and that policy's potential to make exploration of places beyond the Moon possible. The former can be reasoned, the latter makes no sense.

As the Shuttle program draws to an end our feelings seem much as they were at a similar point in 1972. We remember a poignant urgency to draw quality from each moment left to the Apollo program that was also coming to an end, together with similar selling points of a sketchy future that unfolded far below our worst expectations and over a far longer period. Our skepticism is for the benefit of those perhaps not nearly as young as we were then, not out of a desire to recapture lost glories. Imagine yourself at 15 in 1972, somehow aware how the next 40 years would actually unfold. What choices would you make given a belief that the Moon was key to the Cosmos?

It's not easy to trust this president, any president, but not just because trusting politicians is unwise. Despite dreams the hopeful project on him, given his openly-stated ideology a real belief in privatization, for example, seems atypical.

Paul Spudis poses a clear question. Even if the means of gaining permanent foothold in Deep Space is debatable, why bypass the Moon, why take a more difficult course? Might it be this president believes strong national space policy runs counter to other interests, even budgetary priorities, and he is selling a perception of direction, but pushing real progress into "the out years?" It would placate those of his supporters hopeful of rigorous space exploration even as a complex industrial base that makes such things possible can go neglected or be dismantled.

This is more to his pattern, as it was Richard Nixon's.

Paul Spudis said...


I appreciate your re-printing my "over the top" piece, and I don't even mind your changing my title, but could you please link the title to my original post on "Air and Space"?

Link here:


Joel Raupe said...


We always seed the link in the post or the title, or that's what I'm told.

Human error. Our apologies, and thanks for your piece. Well done, really!

It might be wise for us also to add the following:

Paul D. Spudis is a Senior Staff Scientist at the Lunar and Planetary Institute in Houston, Texas. The opinions expressed are his own, and do not reflect the views of his employer or the Smithsonian...

I grew up in and around the District, going on field trips to the old Air & Space Quonset hut. Was I wrong to have remembered the Smithsonian Institute, as opposed to the "Smithsonian Institution?"

Highest personal regards,

Joel Raupe

Joel Raupe said...

Yup. Note "Young Apprentice" has updated the post as it should be. Just as soon as such errors become less frequent, "Young Apprentice" can receive a better nickname, especially since he will undoubtedly get to the Moon before anyone else, if he does not wreck his eyesight, stays in school, continues to fore go use of illicit drugs and steers clear of tattoo parlors.

Jim Gagnon said...

'Might it be this president believes strong national space policy runs counter to other interests, even budgetary priorities, and he is selling a perception of direction, but pushing real progress into "the out years?"' -- In a word: "no." If this president was bent on the destruction of NASA's human space flight and the reclamation of its budget, then do you really think he would have increased NASA's budget and appointed the first black administrator, just to set the agency up for failure? Do you seriously believe that?

Those of us outside NASA look at the Constellation program in general, and the Ares 1 in particular, and shake our heads in wonder that such colossal failures as these could have come out of NASA. Ares 1 (or the GriffenShaft, as we like to call it) represents a triumph of ego over physics and engineering; the fact that it got as far as it did indicates that something is seriously wrong inside of NASA. Large bureaucracies are supposed to be self-correcting, avoiding serious mistakes such as Ares 1 --NASA didn't do that, and any president in Obama's position that let such an agency continue making mistakes without investigating why and correcting them would be shirking their duty.

As far as the destination change, the VSE always had Mars as its ultimate goal. Only the order of how we get there has changed. Bolden has looked at mechanics of reaching each of the goals of the Flexible Path, and his team feels that instead of solving each destination's challenges separately, it makes more sense to solve them together. It's not unusual at all in problem solving to tackle the toughest aspect first; if we can develop the technology to enable fast trips to Mars and the asteroids, then the Moon is a piece of cake.

For the Moon first crowd, you have a choice: fight or compromise. I'm Moon first and I'm in the mood to compromise. The administration has already committed to landing a Project M telepresence robot on the Moon. We need to ensure that money is budgeted for more than one, and that these telepresence explorers are equipped with the tools to conduct real research on the Moon, its composition and environment. The administration should also continue the development of a lunar communication infrastructure so that Project M explorers can operate anywhere on the Moon. If your goal is lunar science, Project M offers us more science faster and longer than human explorers ever could, and at a fraction of the cost.

However, if your goals are stunts and flags, or a specific flavor of infrastructure (Ares, Shuttle derived, etc), then I can understand why you wouldn't like the Bolden plan. Before you dismiss the younger generation's concerns though, consider this: I'm a late boomer who was eleven years old when man landed on the Moon. I need only help pay down the debt the US and NASA accumulates for another 30 years or so. Today's college students, however, will need to pay for 60+ years -- we must listen to them, and take their desires into account. I, for one, am happy to help them step out of their father's shadows and lead mankind to the planets, for I know that by doing that they too will come to understand the wisdom of exploring and settling the Moon.

Joel Raupe said...


No I don't believe that, not at all. All I admitted to definitively was my personal lack of trust in this administration (an opinion putting me in the mainstream, albeit, perhaps too wide a 'mainstream' at 78 percent of Americans, based on recent polling). Unfortunately, when such a credibility gap exists, all sorts of otherwise easily dismissed possibilities then have to be considered.

Allow me to compliment you on a writing style both interesting and expressing a well-thought and informed understanding of the issues in play in this crisis. I sincerely invite you to consider writing a column for our Board and for the other readers of our Society blog, available to the interested public. With or without a byline as you see fit, and we might add an appropriate image, if you can keep it between 800 and 1200 words of less, that would be great but not a strict requirement, we would be happy to promote it.

In the interest of full disclosure, you deserve to know the Lunar Pioneer Society advocates lunar exploration, preferring a method decided upon when the original Group banded together in 1978. This was three years before the first launch of Columbia, of course, and those plans, originally offered up among ourselves in broad strokes, has only become more focused through the years, without regard to the shifting winds of national space policy. We didn't give up on NASA, all those many years ago. Instead we determined to to solve a nagging problem for any constitutional democracy, sustaining commitment to long-term policy in the realities of a two-year federal election cycle, in the case of the United States. Our primary concerns about national space policy are regulatory in nature, and we strongly support privatization.

Were credibility not an issue, we would be of a mind to support this president's proposals, and we are anything but opposed to teleoperation. We would have been much more concerned had LADEE been cancelled, and the rest of the Precursor robotic programs that owe their existence at this time to the original Vision for Space Exploration. We are specifically, though not exclusively, interested in remotely controlled orbital rendezvous and propellant exchange technologies. Much of what guides our thinking, and what has guided NASA's directorates in recent years, can be reviewed in two reports from the National Academies Space Studies Board. Those are The Scientific Context for the Exploration of the Moon: Final Report 2007 and Managing Space Radiation in the New Era of Space Exploration, both of which are linked to our less public website ( under "Essential Reading."

I'm personally curious about your statement about large bureaucracies being "self-correcting." Our experience backs up an ancient theory touching on nearly all collective enterprises, a marked tendency for self-continuity functions to crowd out and ultimately supplant reason-for-being functions, to the inevitable point when self-continuity becomes an enterprise's reason-for-being.

Regards, Joel Raupe