Saturday, June 03, 2006

Fine, let's go to the moon

Scholars, I'm often asked what I think about NASA's new plan to return to the moon. (Probably people ask this just to be polite.)

This plan was, you'll recall, the result of a weird gesture by President Bush, who for about ten minutes had been led to believe that announcing a trip to the moon would revitalize his floundering public image. Of course, the suggestion that we spend billions of dollars going to the moon and then Mars (dollars that would presumably be added to the national deficit, as I don't see him instituting a moon tax) was met with deafening silence cut through with bits of derision. The administration dropped the idea as if it was on fire— I'm pretty confident that he has literally never uttered the word "moon" since—but no one informed poor NASA, god bless them. Those guys have been working overtime trying to spiff up the detailed plans for our Return to the Moon.

NASA's website offers lots and lots of stuff to help us get psyched about the moon missions. One is a video they made using mainly footage of Bush's Moon speech. I recommend watching this for a sad giggle. For one thing, you can actually hear Bush getting bored reading out the speech. Like, he can't even muster fake enthusiasm to get through a description of how the astronauts will mine minerals on the moon to power a transport to Mars. You can hear him start to slow down and emphasize the wrong words— you know the way he does, like a fourth-grader who has trouble with reading comprehension.

in the video, NASA tries to jazz up the flatness of his delivery and the Bushian long pauses with exciting music and animations envisioning the not-far-off day when we will live out the exciting plans Bush is describing. (My favorite of these shows some kind of robot dog scurrying off a spaceship onto the lunar surface).

In addition to this video, the site also offers some pictures of the vehicles that will be used for this space travel:

The thingy on the left is for hauling heavy stuff, like pieces of a space station or lunar home or what have you. The thing on the right is the Crew Exploration Vehicle— it's what the people ride in. It consists of a capsule atop a rocket, a concept familiar to anyone who has ever heard of the moon landings. Let's compare the Crew Exploration Vehicle to the Apollo-era Saturn V, which you will recall was developed in the EARLY NINETEEN SIXTIES:

Comparing these two sort of sums up my feelings about going to the moon. Going to the moon is really fun. I will be glued to the coverage. I envy the astronauts who will get to go. But there's something really sad about spending billions of dollars to recreate a technological feat that was accomplished many years before I was born.

Imagine what would happen if you took a time machine back to the sixties and told all those NASA engineers in their awesome short-sleeved dress shirts that you were visiting from 2006. They'd lean forward eagerly and ask, have you solved the fuel problem? is there a transport to Mars? No, wait, are there colonies on Mars? And you'd have to look them right in their geeky glasses and tell them, No, none of that has come to pass. The President wants to go to the moon, in a vehicle that looks just like the Saturn V. That is, if we can get the Congress to fund it. (Which we won't.) Scholars, I think those engineers would cry.

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