You might not have noticed, but we broke another space record last month when astronaut Michael Lopez-Alegria logged 67 hours of spacewalking. If you consider that the equivalent of the Guinness record for pogo-stick bouncing (23.11 miles in 12 hours and 27 minutes) — amazing but pointless — I agree with you. There’s nothing quite as beautiful as the space station and the shuttle that services it, and nothing quite as useless.
Now, that can be said of many things: a balance-beam dismount, a Shakespeare sonnet, a chess problem by Nabokov. But none of these is financed by taxpayers and none makes a claim to utility. They are there for reasons of aesthetics, and perhaps amusement.
You cannot justify a $17 billion NASA budget or $6 billion spent on manned exploration on such grounds. There has to be more than that, and the space shuttle never was. It will be remembered as one of the most elegant, most misbegotten detours in the history of technology. It was our Spruce Goose, Howard Hughes’s gigantic, eight-engine plane that flew only once.
But the Spruce Goose didn’t cost $4 billion in taxpayer money to operate. Which is why the coming retirement of the shuttle is so welcome. Even more welcome was the Bush administration’s decision to redirect the entire manned space effort to establishing a moon base.
Not until about 2020, mind you, half a century since we first reached the moon. Future generations will have a hard time understanding the hiatus. But for two sets of critics — the Luddite left and the science purists — 50 years is not nearly long enough. They would not build a moon base at all.
The Luddites have long opposed manned exploration as a waste of resources when, as the mantra goes, we have so many problems here on earth.
I find this objection incomprehensible. When will we stop having problems here on earth? In a fallen world of endless troubles, that does not stop us from allocating resources to endeavors we find beautiful, exciting and elevating — opera, alpine skiing, feature films — yet solve no social problems.
Moreover, the moon base is not pointless. The shuttles were on an endless trip to the nowhere of low Earth orbit. The moon is a destination. The idea this time is not to go plant a flag, take a golf shot and leave, but to stay and form a real self-sustaining, extraterrestrial human colony.
Sure, Mars would be better. It holds open the possibility of life and might even have water on its surface today. But the best should not be the enemy of the good. Mars is simply too far, too dangerous, too difficult, too expensive. We won’t go there for a hundred years.
Nor is it true that there is nothing of use or even of interest on the moon. There are all kinds of materials to be exploited, observations of the cosmos to be made, and knowledge to be gained on how best to live off the land away from Earth.
A century ago there seemed to be nothing in Antarctica too. We went there first for adventure, then for discovery. The concrete scientific advances Antarctica has yielded (regarding climate change and the ozone layer, for example) have been as important as they were unexpected.
A more serious critique of returning to the moon comes not from the Luddites but the purists. They want science, and they are right that robotic exploration is a more cost-effective way to get it. The science yielded by unmanned vehicles, such as past and future probes of the ice surface of Europa and the hydrocarbon lakes of Titan, is indeed thrilling. And pound for pound, dollar for dollar, manned exploration does bring back less science than robots.
But it still brings back science. Humans can discover things through intuition and pattern recognition that machines thinking in algorithms cannot. Imagine the scientific possibilities if today we had humans patrolling Mars rather than the brilliantly programmed but still limited golf carts now roaming the surface.
And then there’s the glory. If you find any value, any lift of the spirit in a beautiful mathematical proof, in an elegant balletic turn, in any of the myriad human endeavors that have no utility but only breathtaking beauty, then you should feel something when our little species succeeds in establishing new life in a void that for all eternity had been the province of the gods. If you don’t feel that, you are — don’t take this personally — deaf to the music of our time.