Thursday, January 15, 2004

Going back to the moon

President Bush has announced his plan to return to the Moon, with an eventual goal of going to Mars. CNN reported the plan this way:It's that "16 years" part that has me dumbfounded. Look at the history of early U.S. spaceflight:That is an absolutely amazing record of achievement. There is no other way to say it.

How in the world did we accomplish all of that? Think about it -- At the start of 1958, America had never had anything in orbit and NASA did not even exist. We knew NOTHING. We had never tried to keep a person alive in the vacuum and weightlessness of space, had never used ablative heat shields to handle re-entry, had never fired a retrorocket in space, had never created a space suit, had never "walked in space", had never fired maneuvering rockets in space, had never stopped and restarted an engine in space, had never docked two spacecraft in space, had never left earth orbit, had never orbited another object in space, had never landed on another object, had never taken back off from another object. We truly knew nothing in 1958. We did not even know what the moon was like -- there was some concern that it would be too soft to walk on. We had never sent a probe to the moon in 1958.

Not only did we know nothing, but the computer technology we had available in the 1960s was pathetic. Most of the design work on these space missions was done with pencil and paper and slide rules. Slide rules! We did not have computer-aided design, computer controlled machine tools, or PCs/Workstations. There was no NASA, no Internet, no microprocessors, no graphite composites, no cell phones, no Microsoft, no space stations....

Yet, despite our total ignorance and lack of technology, we went from NOTHING all the way to man on the moon in just 11 years. It is unbelievable when you think about it.

Now we are talking about going back to the moon. Look at where we stand today compared to 1958. In 2004:Given our current position, how long should it take us to get back to the moon? Two years? Maybe three? Compared to where we were in 1958, it should now be trivial to put people on the moon and establish a colony there. Instead, it will take us more than a decade simply to retrace our steps. It will probably take us longer to go back to the moon than it took us to get there the first time!

How do we get back to the kind of energy, drive and passion -- and the kind of creativity, skill and talent -- that America had in the 1960's? How is it that with all the advancements we've made in the last 45 years, we are actually slower now than we once were? What is that telling us?

We should elevate our expectations. Americans should be living on the moon in 2010 and walking on Mars in 2020. If not, it would be very interesting to see China leapfrog us and beat us to Mars in spite of America's substantial head start.

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