Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Why Friedman Is Wrong

Louis D. Friedman recently wrote a blog entry for the Planetary Society.
"I don't blog," I asserted about six months ago. But then again, I also recall saying (sometime in the last century) "I don't do Windows -- DOS is good enough for me." Well, times change; and here I am. This is an experiment. We'll have to see what the reaction (mine and yours) is.
Perhaps, this is the problem right here. There seems to be an unwillingness to change and to progress. Judging from this blog entry, Friedman strikes me as a person who likes things to remain constant, to remain the same until something forces him to advance. At what point did he decide to start "doing Windows"? When Microsoft stopped supporting DOS? And the threat of cutting his "science and exploration" caused him to make another major leap into the future, which is the start of using blogs. For being in a field that is supposed to look towards our future, he seems way too antagonistic to change and to progress. In his blog entry, he adds:
First the U.S. Administration presented a budget to Congress severely cutting back space science research and missions, including great exploration missions to Mars, Europa, and searching for terrestrial planets around other stars. Then...they announce that understanding the Earth is not a goal of NASA's anymore -- despite the fact that understanding the Earth has been one of the principal products of space exploration.
I remember reading somewhere that we should turn the understanding of the Earth to NOAA. Perhaps, the NOAA can do the space missions for the scientific study of our planet, while we free NASA to explore deeper into space. He continues:
The problem is not simply about budget priorities...It is much deeper; it is about the heart and soul of exploration, which is the fundamental goal of NASA. NASA has separated science from exploration, bureaucratically and in their development of missions. They dismiss the great robotic missions: Voyager, Galileo, Cassini, Mars Exploration Rover, New Horizons (past) and Europa Orbiter, Mars Sample Return, Dawn, Terrestrial Planet Finder (future) as only science. Whereas the Vision for Space Exploration strongly supported these robotic missions and the search for extraterrestrial life, the new NASA exploration program cut out half the research connected with the latter subject and all those future missions I just mentioned.

Why would they do this? If the Administration can't supply the funds for the Vision for Space Exploration goals, wouldn't just delaying them make more sense than cannibalizing the part of NASA that is working and has provided such valuable and exciting results to the world, and which was supposed to guide humans into the solar system?

I think I am beginning to understand why. [The] President's science advisor, Dr. John Marburger, declared, "…we want to incorporate the Solar System in our [the U.S.] economic sphere…" and then went on say "The fundamental goal of this vision is to advance U.S. scientific, security, and economic interests through a robust space exploration program.…It subordinates space exploration to the primary goals of scientific, security and economic interests." Whoa -- what happened to exploration? What are the American economic and security interests in human exploration of the Moon and Mars? What happened to "we came in peace for all mankind?"

Marburger has gone further. In testimony to Congress he asserted, "The greatest value of the Moon lies neither in science nor in exploration, but in its material ... The production of oxygen in particular, the major component (by mass) of chemical rocket fuel, is potentially an important Lunar industry." This is ludicrous -- we could probably not devise a more expensive way to make rocket fuel than by producing it on the Moon -- especially with oxygen which we do not know how to extract, or at what cost.
This seems like a sound argument, but it is a dead end. I agree with Friedman on the importance and significance of the great exploratory mission of Galileo, Cassini, Voyager, Pathfinder, and other robot exploratory missions. But his argument is a total dead end. Where have we been in space since the Apollo Era? Since 1972, no human has left Low Earth Orbit. And again, we have had great robotic exploratory missions since Apollo, but if Friedman gets his way, that's all we will be doing for the next 30 or so years. Humans will fail to leave Low Earth Orbit for the next 30 years. The Space Shuttles will crumble while we use rockets based upon 20th century technology to launch our exploratory missions. Is this a future worth having? Not if it could be much better.

The importance of space industry and manufacturing for mandkind is beyond the scope of this blog entry. In fact, that will be the subject of other blog entries. This blog entry is focused on Friedman's goals of exploration and science. I believe that if Friedman is really concerned about science and exploration, then he should back Griffin's moves. Consider this: What has to come before industry and economic development? You guessed it: science and exploration. The economic development of colonial America could not have happen if the Americas was not explored first. The same is true for space.

When we go to the Moon to mine it for its oxygen, it will be based upon plenty of exploration and science. So let's go 20 years into the future, when there is a base on the Moon that is mining it for its oxygen, and for materials to build solar power to export to Earth. It will then be orders of magnitude easier to build a base for science and further exploration of the Moon than otherwise. The Lunar factories could build the tools for Lunar science and exploration much more cheaply than it would cost to launch it from Earth. The Lunar factories could fabricate the Lunar rovers. Controlling Lunar rovers using telepresence would be much better on the Moon than from Earth because there would be no delay in transmission.

And you want to search for new bodies in the Solar System, around other stars, and for extraterrestrial life? Why not build a giant telescope on the dark side of the Moon, which has been a dream for space enthusiasts? Without the development of space, such a project would be next to impossible. But with space development, the Lunar factories could build the parts to it, and then our robots or humans could build it. This telescope will make mincemeat out of Hubble! And finding a way to extract oxygen from Lunar rocks is a very worthy scientific goal.

And what of Mars and the Asteroids? If we have the sufficient infrastructure then we could do this MUCH more cheaply than otherwise. We could build spacecraft to these bodies without having to launch them out of Earth's massive gravity well. This means that we can have far better missions to these bodies than would be possible otherwise. And we would be in a much better position to send humans to these bodies, and to even build bases there, which would further not only the economic development of these bodies. They would further the exploration and the scientific study of these bodies.

As for cutting many scientific missions, by the time we build our space economic infrastructure, these missions will be hopelessly obsolete. The space infrastructure we build will promote the development of exploratory missions that are MUCH better than would be possible without that economic development. The craft we send can be much bigger. We won't have to worry about Earth's gravity well. Just build the craft in orbit using mined Lunar material. Even launching from the Moon would be much cheaper, and allow for much larger missions.

I applaud Griffin for what he is doing. Friedman is hopelessly near-sighted. And by doing so, he is ultimately causing much harm to his own dreams and goals of more exploration and science. It is time that we think in the far term. We can have space development AND we can have science and exploration that is far beyond what Friedman seems to be able to imagine.

And another thing. Science and exporation is good. But what about building space industries that can heal the Earth? What about building Solar Power Satellites that can liberate us from fossil fuels? What about the settlement of space? What about people living in orbit, on the Moon, Mars, asteroids, and other Solar System bodies? Are these not worthy goals for NASA?

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