In thirteen years from now, with a budget of at least US$108 billion, NASA plans to once again put a man on the moon. In fact not one, but four at a time. Perhaps even a woman this time ;-). The major difference in the new moon launch plan – and something no doubt which came out of all the thinking about how “unsafe” the shuttle missions have been – is that a large unmanned heavy cargo launcher will take the actual moon vehicle and cargo up into Earth orbit; then a smaller crew launcher rocket will take the crew into orbit and allow them to dock with the mission specific vehicle. As far as coming back to Earth is concerned, the craft will be much like the original Apollo capsules, but with airbags to land inland and not at sea.
I have a couple of questions on my mind. Firstly, it was announced in the early 60s that the US could make it to the moon before the end of the decade. Today, in 2005, they can only announce 2018 as a possible date for a moon landing. Clearly the plans are more ambitious but the basic fact is that it will take more time, because everything is more complex and more grandiose. Secondly, the budget is very much equivalent to the original Apollo mission budget converted into 1994 US$. Indeed, it’s cheaper. So a more complex project to put four men onto the moon for seven days is budgeted to be cheaper that Apollo was. Somewhere, something doesn’t quite add up for me.
So why go there at all? A number of people hark back to forty two years ago, and one of JFK’s renowned speeches from 1962 :
We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.
Back then, the Russians were engaged with the US administration in the space race. They put the first man in space in April 1961 and this speech followed a few months later. I wonder therefore if the desire to get back to the moon has anything to do with the Chinese space program. They may have denied having plans for a manned moon mission back in 2002, but being the clear leader in defense and aeronautics is a keystone of American policy.
Image Credit : NASA Glenn Research Center (NASA-GRC)