Man Walks on F*&%ing Moon

The Internet has been all abuzz today over the anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing. Tor has the best one-stop collection of reminiscences, but there are plenty of others. They’re roughly equally split between “Wasn’t that the coolest thing ever?” and “Isn’t it a shame we stopped going.

I was a bit over -2 when the Moon landing happened, so I have no personal recollections to offer. It’s a significant enough anniversary for a geek like myself, though, that I wouldn’t want it to pass completely without comment.

Personally, while I have some sympathy for the laments that we stopped sending people to the Moon, I think it does a disservice to all the hard work that’s been done in the last thirty-odd years. James Nicoll offers a list of incredible accomplishments since the end of Apollo, and it’s an impressive list indeed. The robotic exploration programs get kind of slighted whenever the Apollo anniversaries roll around, and it’s a shame, because they’ve done far more for our understanding of the solar system than any of the manned missions.

I like the idea of new manned missions– called for by former astronauts, among others, but they’re butting up against an ugly fact: rocket science is hard. The currently available methods for getting things out into space all kind of suck, and absent some great improvements in propulsion technology, it’s just not that practical to send humans to Mars, let alone anywhere else. It’s also not clear that there’s a compelling reason to do so.

Don’t get me wrong– I’d love to see something like the plasma rocket described in the Franklin Chang Diaz profile, or better yet, Karl Schroeder’s Verne Gun. I’d love to see more manned exploration missions, even though it’s pretty clear that I’m not personally going to get to set foot on Mars. But until somebody comes up with a better launch mechanism and a killer propulsion system, robots are the way to go.

At the same time, though, I have very little sympathy for the Gil Scot-Heron argument that we shouldn’t be spending money on space exploration at all. Yeah, fine, we spent almost $20 billion on NASA last year that could’ve been spent on social programs, but Americans as a whole spent almost $10 billion on movie tickets last year, which is even more frivolous. And let’s not even talk about the gargantuan defense budget.

If I thought that last $20 billion would make the difference between the status quo and an ideal world of perfect equality and no poverty, then you might have a case. But you know, there are lots of other places to get that money from, that are doing even less good for humankind.