The Moon. Let’s Go Back.

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Last night I snapped this photo of the moon. I’m delighted to say that I wasn’t the only one: Lots of people around the world were taking some great photos. And while the moon is absolutely gorgeous, part of me is sad, angry and frustrated that we haven’t been back since 1972.

Twelve human beings have set foot on that grey lump of rock. Twelve. There’s 7 billion of us alive, it’s only a three-day journey to another world – another frontier – and we’ve only sent twelve of us. And none of them since 1972.

Since 1972 we’ve sent people as far as the Hubble Space Telescope – 578 km above the Earth. At its closest point, the moon is about 362,570 km from Earth. We’ve gone nowhere near it for more than 40 years.

There’s no reason why we can’t go back, of course. We still have all the technology, the engineering knowledge, the expertise to do it. If anything, we have better technology now than we did 41 years ago. And there’s plenty we still have to learn about the moon! We don’t really have a good understanding of how it was formed, or why it seems to have two very different halves. The Apollo landings were all on the near side to us – for obvious logistical reasons. We have very sketchy information about the far side. And perhaps the best reason of all: water! At least three separate instruments on two different space probes have detected signs of sub-surface water. And where there’s water

But the science we can learn from manned lunar missions doesn’t just stop with understanding the moon. Like Mars, the moon is a hostile environment which makes it ideal for testing planetary exploration technologies. If we are ever to build a colony on Mars, it makes sense to start on the moon first: it’s a three day trip if anything goes wrong, and you don’t have to wait months for a launch window. And the moon would be a perfect stopover for further space exploration. Launch from Earth, refuel on the moon, then launch again to your next destination. And if there turns out to be a lot of sub-surface water there, that can be easily broken up with solar-cells into breathable oxygen and hydrogen for rocket fuel.

It’s not a question of money, it’s a question of will. Political and societal will. The US government is currently planning to buy 2,443 brand new Joint Strike Fighter F-35 warplanes at a cost of $1.1 trillion over the next five years. The United States spends six times more money on the military than China, the next biggest spender. Yet NASA’s budget is continually being slashed, especially in planetary sciences. NASA’s budget over the last five years came to around $85 billion. If you’re having a hard time picturing how much more important the US Congress thinks fighter planes are over space exploration, I made a little graph:

NASA vs F-35
Source: Reuters / Wikipedia

Our future is in space.

There can be no question about that – we are explorers. Our history as a species is one of exploration and development. To quote Sam Seaborn from The West Wing, “we came out of the cave, and we looked over the hill and we saw fire; and we crossed the ocean and we pioneered the west, and we took to the sky. The history of man is hung on a timeline of exploration and this is what’s next.” Of course, if our natural inclination to explore isn’t enough to get us off this planet there’s a good chance the ravages of over-population and climate change will.

We should be preparing for that. We should be back on the moon doing science, and building a Moon-base. But we’re not. We’re stagnating.

I’ll finish with one of my heroes, Neil deGrasse Tyson, explaining ‘the case for space’ much better than I ever could.

From Atlanta to New York, via Washington DC

I’ve not been very good at keeping this up to date.

Trouble is, I’m just totally in holiday mode. Living ‘in the moment’ and not thinking about keeping people updated with my travels. Sorry ‘bowt that, Chief!

So Dragon*Con in Atlanta was a blast. Lots of really interesting talks and panels on everything from science fiction (Mythology, Philosophy and Truth in Star Wars), science fact (DNA Sequencing and You!), space (The 100 Year Spaceship – NASA & DARPA working on manned intersteller flight) and skepticism (Everything Evolves – Including Creationism). And of course the parade was SO MUCH FUN! Just great to see so many people having a good time and being crazy!

I stuffed up my planning, though, and booked my hotel in Atlanta (and therefore my flight to Washington and check-in in DC) for the last day of the convention, so I missed a few panels and talks. Oh well!

Washington was great. It’s definitely a beautiful city. I went to the International Spy Museum which, as you might expect, is all about spycraft. With all the gadgets and things associated with espionage: cypher wheels from the American Civil War, bugs, micro-dot cameras and poison-dart umbrella-guns from the Cold War, footage from the McCarthy era, models of the Vietnamese tunnels etc right up to cyber-warfare and modern day espionage. A really interesting museum! They even had an Astin Martin DB5 like in James Bond: Goldfinger! 🙂

I also went to the National Air & Space Museum, where I saw the actual command modules from the early manned space flights and Apollo missions – tiny! Like tin cans!

The Museum of Natural History is also fantastic. Really well laid out and lots of interesting fossils and demonstrations.

I did a night-tour of the city, which included stops at all the usual landmarks – Capitol; Lincoln, Roosevelet and Martin Luther King memorials; Washington Monument etc. Only due to security restrictions we weren’t able to see the Whitehouse. Fortunately, I have watched all seven seasons of The West Wing so I’ve a pretty good idea what it looks like.

One of the newest and more interesting museums I went to was the Newseum. Originally at Arlington, Virginia since 1997 it moved to a huge building on Pennsylvania Ave in 2008. It takes a really in-depth look at journalism – from the invention of the Gutenburg press in 1455 right up to the modern internet age. And by doing so, it highlights many of the defining moments of history, particularly in the last hundred years. Lots of original newspapers and footage, and lots of commentary both on the events and the way the events were covered. There are a few special exhibits – a September 11 room with a piece of the WTC TV aerial, and covering the walls are front pages from newspapers all around the world. There’s also an exhibit about Hurricane Katrina, detailling how long it took the government to react and commemorating Pulitzer-prize winning newspapers like the Times-Picayune, a New Orleans paper that kept printing every day (sometimes two or three times a day) with updates and news. It also posed ‘ethical’ questions that confront journalists in such situations – at what stage do you stop ‘reporting’ and actually get involved with saving people etc.

Anyway, a fantastic building and excellent museum – sorry, Newseum. Well worth checking out.

I also took a long journey – train, bus and taxi – out to NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. This is where many of the unmanned NASA missions are controlled. Unfortunately, though, the Visitor Center was much smaller and more boring than I’d expected. I possibly spoiled it by doing the Air and Space Museum the day before, but Goddard turned out to be a few models of the Space Station, the Shuttle and a bunch of “press this button to see how gravity works” type displays. Sure, would probably be great for young kids, but it was nothing new, interesting or exciting for me.

And yesterday I jumped on an Amtrak train and made my way to New York. Wow. Especially going from Atlanta and then Washington, once you get to New York it’s a huge culture shock! No longer can Sydney or Melbourne be called ‘cities’ – they’re barely even large towns compared to NY! I can’t believe how huge and more importantly how BUSY it is. Particularly Times Square, of course. Once I got settled I went for a walk to Broadway which is just phenomenal. Apparently Broadway now rivals Las Vegas’ strip in terms of ‘illuminated signs’.

Of course, 9/11 is on everyone’s minds, today being September 11. There are police on every street, and it was quite confronting when I got off the train and saw armed soldiers. And yet, they aren’t threatening and I feel oddly very safe and grateful for them. Although I know there’s not a lot they can do and if someone really wanted to do something it wouldn’t be too hard, it’s still strangely reassuring. It definitely doesn’t have a ‘police state’ feel to it.

I don’t know what my chances of getting to the WTC site are today – I’ve heard it’ll be survivors and families only. But I’ll wander over and see what’s happening. I can always go tomorrow, or later in the week. Also planning on a visit to the American Museum of Natural History and the Hayden Planetarium which are supposed to be excellent. Apparently you can get good views of the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island from the Staten Island ferry, and I might go for a walk on the Brooklyn Bridge. I’m very close to the New York Times building, which has a 9/11 memorial exhibit so I might look at that too. And then there’s the Empire State Building – I might do that in the evening to avoid crowds of tourists – and I’ve got tickets to a comedy show sometime this week.

So much to do, so little time!

Dragon*Con

This was originally going to be a reply to Dave’s comment on my last post, but it got so big it became worthy of a new post.

Food in Atlanta: my hotel is right across the road from Peactree Plaza, which has a huge food court. Lots of burger joints, but also Chinese, Mexican and pizza shops as well. The big thing I’ve noticed is that some burger joints don’t give you a choice of size – it’s large or nothing. Ones that do have small/medium/large etc everything is up one on the scale. So small is what we consider medium, medium is what we call large and large is enough to feed a family of 12.

DragonCon started today! The day after I got here was registration – so waiting in a queue for an hour or so to get my badge and program. Wasn’t too bad though. I spent the rest of the day walking around and exploring. Learning where the hotels are, and planning which panels and events I’m going to.
And today was Day 1 of DC. I went to a lecture on genetics and obesity which sounded really interesting but was actually boring and technical. And focused on rare genetic disorders rather than the common obesity problem. I also went to the Solar Obervation area, where a few solar telescopes were set up that you could look through and see what the sun’s doing. Was pretty cool.
I spent the rest of the morning taking photos of people in crazy awesome costumes. I’ll upload what I can soon!
Later today I’ll be checking out some astronomy talks, some robotics panels and hopefully get a few photos of the Klingon Karaoke.

Yes, Klingon Karaoke.
With actual Klingons.

This evening there will be telescopes set up to view the stars etc (although the light polution here will be pretty bad I think) and there’s an “all things Monty Python” event which I’ll try and get to.

Tomorrow: There’s three or four talks I want to see, but they’re all on at the same time as the DragonCon Parade – where all the costumed people parade down the main street. I’ve GOTTA go to that!
There’s also some skeptics and science talks on afterwards.

Having a blast!