July 20, 1969… Fifty years! A lifetime ago, the Moon landing seemed like a new horizon. But it wasn’t.
On the twentieth anniversary of the Apollo 11 Moon Landing (July 1989), President G. W. Bush, surrounded by the Apollo crew, announced a project 1 to get back to the Moon before the 50th anniversary of the landing on 18 July 2019. There were many reasons it never came to pass. But the bottom-line was: the idea of returning to the Moon did not excite lasting interest.
What should we make of this outcome no one planned? Wasted? Or indicative? What happened to the future?
It became the present we gave ourselves because:
- Moments after the first landing, Governments turned to squandering funds and lives on horrific slaughter and waste such as the Vietnam War and the Cultural Revolution
- As the cold-war and nuclear proliferation continued through the 70s and 80s, Governments were more interested in spying than in space
- Television (Lost in Space, Star Trek, Battlestar Galactica…) and movies (2001 A Space Odyssey…) substituted. They did “inspiration” as well as an actual space program — maybe better — and at much lower cost.
- There’s a reason this image (from Apollo 8) is iconic. Space exploration turned out to be less attractive than earth exploration from low or geostationary orbit (which is where all the money still goes).
- Fast, high-bandwidth, global communications was an essential cooperator industry for the rapid growth of information technology, entertainment (dis-information technology?) and finance & banking industries. So the commercial money went into comms satellites. This likely raised the cost of other forms of space investment.
- For the aero-space industry and its customers, intercontinental travel proved much more valuable than space travel, much less expensive to scale and had immediate pay-offs. Passenger prices fell fast in this sector thanks to larger equipment (wide-bodied jets) but rose dramatically for Space thanks to the USA’s choice of an over-crewed space Shuttle
- There are huge unit costs — still at least $1,400 per kg — to reach even low orbit. They are much greater where humans are the cargo. The cost of staying there is astronomical. The “International” Space Station (a “station to nowhere”) exceeded its projected budget by a factor of 10 (now about $150bn) and by all reports undershot its projected benefits by at least as much…
- … so, space budgets & expertise in the USA, Europe, Japan and China went to ‘harder’ science targets: robotic exploration and telescopes that have made much more valuable contributions to science
- Aside: The low benefit-cost ratio of space-faring may not be a purely terrestrial problem . One way to model the Fermi “paradox” is that, even for more advanced civilisations, it is simply too expensive to colonise the galaxy: so no civilisation has sustained exploration (except possibly by non-biologics)
- Space boosterism such as the still-popular O’Neill thesis — that space “habitats” are a safeguard against existential threats (environmental calamity; population explosion; the exhaustion of natural resources) — only re-hash the discredited allegations of the environmental movements of the 70s (“Club of Rome”, “Silent Spring”, Alvin Toffler etc). These overblown fears were never based on solid evidence or an understanding of the markets for energy, agriculture or minerals
- The idea that mining the Moon (the ‘eighth continent’, according to boosters) or asteroids could be a competitive source of resource supply seems even less credible than the idea of mining the seabed. That project, despite decades spent negotiating an international treaty and an international bureaucracy to regulate it, has not proved a commercial option except for some “easily” recovered oil/gas.
- The Bezos theory, extending O’Neill’s, that the world will soon need more energy than can be reasonably generated on the planet surface and more room for more billions of humans, also seems dubious. But I’ve written another post on that 🙂