Monday, 1 February 2010

Obama Cancels Moon Project

This is a strange story. While it seems to be the standard "recession causes cutbacks" thing, there are deeper considerations at work here too.

Firstly, it's clearly a reversal of the 1960s policies. When JFK committed the US to reaching the Moon, the subsequent president (Nixon didn't have time to do much about it) followed it through. In part, this was because LBJ was consciously trying to capitalise on the JFK legacy and somehow therefore ensure his administration wasn't dominated by the escalating Vietnam crisis. In that, he was only partly successful. Obama of course is trying to undo the Bush legacy in almost every way. And this project, so long term and so expensive, was designed as a Bush legacy thing - something for people to remember him by in generations to come. It wasn't a real aspiration in the way that it was in the 60s.

And the reasons for that is the second point. We're just not interested anymore. Our scientific interests are entirely to do with our bodies. Biology - that's what we want. From that point of view, our range of inquiry has narrowed. We don't look outwards now. No-one wants to go back to the moon: the practical benefits look slight; the costs and risks immense; and the sense of achievement it would bring is irrelevant - we simply don't value that kind of achievement. We are much more likely to condemn it as wasteful and so on.

Thirdly, the whole project seemed somewhat uninspired. The rocket was new, but the delivery systems were entirely based on Apollo, just with updated computers and guidance and so on. NASA's argument was to the effect of "why rewrite a hit" but it made the whole idea seem derivative and as if they were just going through the motions - very expensive motions, at that. Is this unfair? Perhaps. But for a project intended to be concluded some fifty one years after the original moon landings, using the same designs is strange. Were there really no other ideas?

While I deplore the lack of imagination in this decision, and the fact that it's all too predictable in an era that is not interested in anything outside its own genitals, the project was definitely flawed. If Obama and his government can come up with anything more interesting, I'd be all for it. It does look as if they are going for something they are condemning elsewhere -a private sector, private finance set of initiatives.

Who'd a thunk it?


Matt M said...

I don't think it's quite as bad as you're making out - one, apparently ill-conceived, project is being shelved, but funding is being increased and the "space industry" is being opened-up to a wider range of minds and interests.

While space travel represented little more than a means of embarrassing the Ruskies it made sense that it was a government-run project. But if it's going to really take-off (if you'll excuse the pun) then it needs to be much more commercial. It looks as though the US's decision might be a significant step in that direction.

The Tin Drummer said...

Hmmm...but do they have the vast reserves of capital?

I know they wanted to embarrass the Reds, but don't you think there was also a genuine exploration-type motive there as well? I still think it's one of our greatest achievements.

Matt M said...

The micro has always fascinated me more than the macro (though I still both are amazing). I think that the fact that we can model the events at a quantum level we ultimately prove more enriching for the human race - in terms of both knowledge and achievement - than the "simple" fact of having landed on the Moon. Although, ultimately, humanity's survival will probably rest upon our ability to reach out to the stars.

If we can untangle space exploration from politics (no matter how noble the ambition of the politicians in question) then I think that our chances of setting foot on other worlds will be greatly increased.

I've read a few blogs/articles from people interested/involved in space travel, and they seem to be viewing Obama's decision in a fairly positive light. With any luck, it'll open up a whole new age of innovation and exploration.

The Tin Drummer said...

Interesting question. I'm fascinated by that too, but I don't think most of us are. I think it is genetics - us - that interest us now. For me though, the human race has always been characterised by its inqusitiveness, its desire to get out and explore. It doesn't matter all that much to me what material benefits it brings, I just think it expresses so much of what is brilliant about us - the Bob the Builderness of us: "Can we do it? Er...Yes we can".

I hope those people are right on the blogs you've read, because from where I'm sitting it looks like an excuse to kick it into the long grass.