The Moon By 2020


Image taken from The Google Lunar X-Prize homepage.
Here’s a bit of old news, but interesting nonetheless: NASA intends to put humans on the moon by 2020. Another take on that bit of news is here.

Not to be outdone, the Russians announced that they would be mining the moon by 2020. It seems Helium-3 is plentiful in lunar soil.

Similarly, the Chinese said that they would like to have one of their citizens on the moon by –you guessed it– 2020.

All this is quite odd, considering that when I was a kid, 2020 was a time when the moon should be old news. Take this perspective from 1979, which predicted that 2020 would see the first lunar Olympics!

It’s all quite remarkable. Manned spaceflight began in 1961, and culminated with the “giant leap for mankind” in 1969. That’s it: one decade of Mercury, Gemini, Apollo and Soyuz flights. The 1970s gave us a handful of additional moonshots and the first stabs at a space station. The Shuttle era has given us many low Earth orbit missions and a real space station. But that’s it.

See, for those of us who came of age in the Apollo era, there was supposed to be so much more. As a species, we went from monkeys in space to men on the moon in less than a decade. Forty years later, we haven’t even been back to the moon. And now we plan on making it back there by 2020, a good 51 years since we first arrived.

As the 1979 article affirms, we kids of the 1970s had every rational expectation of a manned mission to Mars by the 1980s, bases in orbit and on the moon by the turn of the century, and permanent settlements on the moon, Mars and beyond by 2020. Instead, we have a not insignificant proportion of people who actually believe the moon shots never took place– that’s how divorced people have become from the glory days of humankind’s greatest adventure.

So what went wrong? In a word, economics. The flush economics of the 1960s gave way to the fake energy crisis of the 1970s and a real political crisis as the Cold War stopped being a viable excuse for any extraordinary public expenditure. Futurists in the 1940s, 50s and 60s predicted that the moon landings would take place sometime in the 1970s. It was the singular will of JFK that forced NASA to make it priority #1. While achieving an incredible feat by putting Armstrong in the Sea of Tranquility before the end of 1969, NASA nonetheless shot themselves in the foot by not creating an economically robust institution capable of spinning success into further cost effectiveness. The result was an institutional distaste for large, flashy and expensive technological displays.

In some ways, the 2020 mission plans are the way things should have been done in the first place. Had international cooperation replaced Kennedy’s Cold War enthusiasm, a more economical path would have seen larger, more sustained and expandable missions to the moon, probably beginning in the late 1970s. The advantages sown are the same ones only now being considered: real public-private partnerships (instead of pork barrel contracts), using mature computer and materials technologies, and sharing the cost across sectors and even nations.

Most importantly, what was needed was a long term strategy that transcended the need to simply beat the Soviets to the moon. We sort of have that now, with all three manned spacefaring nations proposing plans for long term bases and industrial exploitation of lunar resources.

It’s a shame that I’ll be 53 in 2020: probably too old to qualify for a moon mission. I’m a little bitter that history did not unfold the way we were promised it would, with we middle aged fogies taking our kids and grandkids to the Tharsis plateau, Olympus Mons and the Sea of Storms for summer vacation.

Then again, with fuel prices being what they are, we’ll be lucky to be able to take our kids to Niagara Falls in a few years!