Everyone’s Gone to the Moon

Since the media have been banging on about it all week, as have various other bloggers, I suppose I should at least mention that today (16th July 2009) is the fortieth anniversary of the launch of NASA’s  Apollo 11 mission which put the first man on the Moon. I’m reliably informed that the picture on the left shows the second man on the Moon, Buzz Aldrin, although I don’t think the costume gives much clue to the identity of the wearer.

My response to the media furore  is muted because I’m decidedly ambivalent about the whole business of manned space exploration. I’m not going to be churlish and say that all the Apollo missions did was provide America with a much-needed propaganda victory during the Cold War. I think it’s true that putting a man on the Moon was a great achievement in terms of ingenuity and organization. It’s  probably also true that it inspired many people to go into science who otherwise wouldn’t have done so. I’d even say that the sight of Earth from the Moon marked the beginning of a new age of awareness of the fragility of our own existence on our home planet and, perhaps even a step towards our coming-of-age as a species.

The reason I am ambivalent, however, is that the scientific returns from the Apollo missions were entirely negligible, at least in terms of value for money,  partly because the Apollo missions weren’t really designed to do science in the first place and partly because the Moon just isn’t very interesting…

Mankind hasn’t returned to the Moon since the Apollo series came to an end. That’s not a matter for regret, just a reflection of the fact that there isn’t much to be found there. In those forty years  astronomy and space science have moved on immeasurably through spaceborne observatories and unmanned probes. We have learned far more about the Universe  those ways than could ever be achieved by sending a few people to collect rocks from a dull piece of rubble in our backyard. In the process, the Universe has grown in size relative to the scale possible to reach by human engineering projects. The last forty years has shown us that, in retrospect, going to the Moon wasn’t really all that impressive compared to what we can find out by remote means.

Unfortunately there appears to be an increasingly vocal lobby in favour of diverting funds from fundamental science into manned space exploration, much of it aimed at the goal of putting a person on Mars.  This has not yet resulted in a commitment by the United Kingdom government to join in manned space exploration, but it is worrying that the Chief Executive of the Science & Technology Facilities Council is a failed astronaut who I fear sees this as an attractive option. Even more worryingly, Science Minister Lord Drayson seems to be keen too. It’s up to  scientists to present the case to government for maintaining investment in fundamental science and against having the budget plundered to play Star Trek.

The European Space Agency‘s Aurora programme is intended to culminate with a manned trip to Mars, at an overall cost of over £30 billion. One of the arguments I hear over and over again in favour of this programme is that it will inspire young people to take up science, especially physics. Well, maybe. But people can’t become scientists unless they have the opportunity to learn science at School and there is a drastic shortage of physics teachers these days. What’s the point of being inspired if you can’t get the education anyway? You could train an awful  lot of school teachers for  a small fraction of the Aurora budget.  And what’s the point of inspiring people to take up astronomy and space science when you’re also busy slashing the budget for research and ending the careers of those excellent scientists we’ve already got?

So by all means let’s celebrate the marvellous achievements of 1969, but let’s move on and not pretend that there is any good scientific reason for repeating them.

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11 Responses to “Everyone’s Gone to the Moon”

  1. Bryn Jones Says:

    Peter,

    You provocatively state – deliberately – that lunar science is not interesting. Of course, that is not the case. Understanding the origins and evolution of the Moon, and of the Earth-Moon system, are fundamentally important scientific issues, and are fully worthy of investment. The issue here is that lunar science is not more important than other areas of science, and is not more worthy of investment than, say, the evolution of galaxies or the cosmic microwave background radiation.

    The problem we have, as you clearly stated, is that there is a political will to divert very limited scientific research funds away from some highly productive areas of research into spaceflight, just because manned spaceflight has a high media profile, or is supported by an industrial lobby that wants to get its hands on large amounts of public money.

    We need to remember that manned space flight can have some fundamental scientific importance: it is through manned activities that the Hubble Space Telescope has been repaired, refurbished and maintained to pursue critically important research. But most manned spaceflight is cripplingly expensive while having little scientific return.

    The Apollo missions, despite science being only a tiny element in their conception, did return considerable rock samples of scientific importance. This was at a time when competing Soviet unmanned probes were able only to return significantly smaller samples. At that time, manned spaceflight could achieve scientific objectives that unmanned exploration could not. Today the situation is reversed: unmanned probes are capable of achieving great things on Mars, and could on the Moon, at a tiny fraction of the cost of manned activities. And this without the danger of killing anyone due to hardware failure or solar flares.

    The danger we face, as you imply, is that any increase in space activities, particularly manned spaceflight, will be achieved by diverting funding from world-class science to gee-whizz adventure. It would involve closing telescopes, instrumentation laboratories, university research groups and particle accelerators. Unfortunately, that is a process that seems to be underway already, at least here in Britain.

  2. John Peacock Says:

    Peter: you’re a grumpy old man, as am I. I agree with your attitude to Apollo, and I hate myself for doing it. Being a teenager during the moonshots was an inspiration, and even now a film of a Saturn 5 launching brings a shiver to my spine. In 1969, there were plenty of people saying the money could be better spent on Earth, and I thought they were unimaginative idiots. But now I think they were right. When you think not about the money, but about what talented and motivated people can accomplish when pointed in the right direction, just imagine how we might have tackled the miseries of poverty and the problems of global warming if they’d got an Apollo-style priority in the 1960s. The moon could have waited. In fact, even at the time, I felt I was seeing something that was happening centuries before its natural time. I can’t regret that I saw it, but I know that this is pure selfishness.

    • telescoper Says:

      John,
      I am indeed. But I don’t hate myself for it. Grumpy old man is a role I’ve been aspiring to all my life.

      Peter

  3. Adrian Burd Says:

    John,
    I agree with you about the talent and money being best used elsewhere. However, the difference between the projects you mention and the moon program is that the former are more closely tied with divergent political (as well as ethical, moral etc) views. When a US congressman (sadly, from the state of Georgia) can get applause for stating, on the floor of the house, that global warming is a hoax knowingly perpetrated by scientists, then there is sadly little hope of programs on the scale you suggest.

    Adrian

    p.s. Talking of grumpy old men, I adore the small scene in “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” where Alec Guinness describes retiring to a small country village where he can become the local eccentric.

    That’s what I aspire to!

    • telescoper Says:

      Adrian,

      I’ll respond to your bit of Tinker-Tailor with the following quote from Smiley’s People, which is the speech that inspired me to a career as Grumpy Old Man:

      In my time, Peter Guillam, I’ve seen Whitehall skirts go up and come down again. I’ve listened to all the excellent argument for doing nothing, and reaped the consequent frightful harvest. I’ve watched people hop up and down and call it progress. I’ve seen good men go to the wall and the idiots get promoted with a dazzling regularity. All I’m left with is me and thirty-odd years of cold war without the option.

      Peter

  4. telescoper Says:

    Kav, I heard a plug for this the other day. Apparently it’s a 30 minute programme during which they discuss all the exciting science to be done with Moonlite. I don’t know what’s in the other 29 minutes though.

  5. Bryn Jones Says:

    I listened to the BBC radio programme last night. It summarised the proposed Moonlite mission, its background, objectives and the military technology behind it. Very little was said about whether Moonlite is as worthy of funding as experiments to send to Mars, missions to Jupiter, Saturn, comets or asteroids, or telescopes in orbit, or telescopes on the ground, or satellites to observe extrasolar planets, the Galaxy, other galaxies or the CMB, or funding to pay researchers to do science with existing facilities, or a thousand other things.
    There was a brief mention of funding problems, but this referred to the current situation due to “the recession”, not the STFC funding mess.
    The programme was reasonable in itself, but failed to discuss the context, the science funding crisis. or whether there are much more competitive projects and at much lower costs.

  6. [...] Since I’ve recently been officially awarded the title of Grumpy Old Man, I now feel I have the necessary authorization to vent my spleen about anything and [...]

  7. Anton Garrett Says:

    It might be worth it if we can put Gordon Brown’s government on Mars.

  8. Anton Garrett Says:

    I thinnk what some people are grumbling about here is that moonshots and Mars shots are liable to come out of the science budget. Much better for all to be open that this is a human project, not a science one; then the grounds for and against it look very different. (Take it from the defence budget?) I for one don’t feel guilty that watching replays of Saturn V liftoffs gives me goosebumps.

    As for using the money to combat poverty: depends how its spent. The best cure for poverty is to improve the trustworthiness of a people, so that small businesses – based on a web of formal and informal contracts – can generate wealth without having to pay bribes, pay people to watch each other, sue defaulters, etc etc. Government must also set up, and enforce impartially, fair law of contract. As for how to implement this program – obedience can be enforced top-down but morality cannot. Here we enter the realm of religion…

    Anton

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