Friday, 24 July 2009 00:00
On the day America celebrated the 40th anniversary of Apollo XI, a laid-off computer technician of my wife’s acquaintance who had been working as a sales clerk in a department store moved to Hong Kong. More about him later.
Let me say that as extraordinary as the achievement was, and as fond as I am of the memories of that achievement generated by the recent 40th anniversary of Apollo XI landing on the moon, the fact is that manned exploration beyond scientific research in earth-orbit is unrealistic at this juncture; something this science fiction fan has no problem saying.
Mine the minerals on the moon? It costs $1,000 to send one pound of payload into orbit around earth. Even if the moon were composed of solid gold and had vast oceans of refined petroleum, mining it would be cost ineffective. It’s economics 101: spending a $1 million for every 50 cents one brings in is not the hallmark of a profitable operation.
A manned-journey to Mars? In 1969, NASA and the Nixon administration looked into it and estimated that such a mission would be ready to go by 1986. People then, and now, underestimate the difficulty of the task. If the Apollo missions to the moon were like driving across town, than a voyage to Mars would be like driving to California. Folks seem to have forgotten, too, that Apollo was a creation of 1960s-era technology. In the four decades since Armstrong stepped foot on the moon, breakthroughs in robotics and computers have made it possible for unmanned craft to visit distant worlds and collect far more data than astronauts could - for a 1,000th of the cost. Probes to Mars, the outer planets and their moons, and to a comet and an asteroid have taught us more about the solar system in the last 40 years than we have learned in the previous 400 years. The scientific benefits of a manned expedition to Mars would be marginal.
The educational benefits of manned missions? Again, marginal. Space enthusiasts are correct when they say we need to inspire students to study science and engineering. Science education is woefully inadequate in America. A few years ago, for example, a National Science Foundation found that more than 20 percent of adult Americans didn’t know that the Earth and other planets revolved around the Sun (something discovered in 1543). This year is the bicentennial of Charles Darwin’s birth and, in spite of a century-and-a-half of physical evidence accumulated from every major field of science, millions of Americans don’t accept the reality of evolution.
A 2005 New York Times article reported that about a quarter of all the Ph.D.s in America, in the sciences, were foreign-born and educated, as were about a third of the American Noble Prize winners. India, China, Japan, South Korea and Singapore produce more engineers, microbiologists, computer technicians, and medical researchers per capita than the U.S. and none of them have put a man on the moon or are talking about a manned mission to Mars. They do, however, manage to give their young people a good science education.
The school children aspiring to go to Mars when they grow up need, instead, to wonder if the nation that would send them there won’t be bankrupt by the time they are old enough to join NASA, given the cavalier attitude towards burning money. Instead of spending more than $100 billion so that an astronaut can get his/her photograph taken with Olympus Mons towering in the background, we could help our shoe-string budget science museums or provide more incentives for engineering firms and research institutes to continue to do business in America so that college graduates or experienced technicians won’t have to move overseas to places like Hong Kong in order to earn a living because the starting salaries here are on par with those of employees working in a fast-food establishment.
(Editor’s Note: Paul Manton is a member of the Hicksville Gregory Museum’s Board of Advisors).