While I’ve had my back turned in recent weeks, the Obama administration announced the scrapping of NASA’s Constellation program to return astronauts to the moon, explore asteroids, service distant space telescopes, and lay the groundwork for human exploration of Mars. I’ve since read several articles about this, and still have no idea what the new plans for our human spaceflight program are. It’s not even clear to me that the Constellation goals have been abandoned, but Constellation, itself, is history. Whether that program was the right way to accomplish those goals, I don’t know. (Although, development of the Ares V heavy lift booster strikes me as a good idea, regardless; having a tool like that available creates a lot of opportunities.) It does, at least, seem clear that Constellation was inadequately funded to accomplish its original goals in a timely manner, if at all. While some of this bothers me not a bit—I think human exploration of Mars is a bad idea for the foreseeable future (contaminating a planet with humans, and whatever other Earth biota they bring with them, is a not an aid, but a hindrance, to searching it for its own unique lifeforms)—I’d have liked … really, really liked … to see us go back to the moon.
The oldest, and seemingly most common objection to human lunar exploration dates back to the Apollo era and is that it costs too much, and we need that money elsewhere. The most common reply to such concerns is that NASA is a tiny fragment of the federal budget (currently less than 1%, if memory serves), so, even with some budget increase to support a crewed lunar program, if you’re looking for money for other projects, there are a lot of agencies whose budgets can be raided to far greater effect. A less common, but at least equally important response, is that the only things “lost” to space exploration are the hunks of metal, plastic, etc. that we fling into space (or into the ocean, along the way). We loose no money to it - all of the money stays on Earth, where it supplies good paying jobs and tax revenue. (My own job has nothing whatsoever to do with the space program, I hasten to add. Money-wise, I have no stake in this, other than being an American taxpayer.)
Yet another objection has more weight to it, in my opinion: That human space exploration is expensive, dangerous, and, beyond low Earth orbit, exceedingly rare, and not currently possible; therefore, we can do exploration cheaper, safer, and more often if we do it robotically. I agree with that argument. But the political reality is that we will have human spaceflight – the money associated with it flows into too many congressional districts for abandoning it to be politically tenable. And even I don’t want to see it abandoned – I just want to see it go someplace for a change, and not cannibalize the robotic exploration programs as it does so.
But there’s yet another objection that I’ve been hearing more and more in recent years, which is: “been there, done that.” That one takes my breath away. It’s like the tourist who visits the Grand Canyon, stops at a few scenic overlooks, maybe takes a donkey ride, and then crosses it off his list of places to see. Been there, done that. That there might be something more in those ≅2,000 square miles than was apparent during his hit-and-run visit never occurs to him. (And those who would never visit at all, because “it’s just another hole in the ground,” make even our hit-and-run visitor a master of insight by comparison. Their lunar equivalents might choose a phrase like “just rocks, dust, and more rocks,” but the failure is the same.)
The moon doesn’t offer us the life and color that a natural wonder like the Grand Canyon does, but it is a natural wonder nonetheless, covered with mountains, valleys, plains, extinct volcanoes, and even caves, that no human eye has beheld, except, perhaps, in glimpses from orbit. So, yes, we’ve been there, like the hit-and-run tourist. But have we “done” it? The notion is absurd. And if we go back without including in every crew an Ansel Adams-grade photographer, complete with the digital equivalent of a large-format, bellows camera, to climb those mountains, walk those canyons, and capture those sights for us, we’ll have cheated ourselves. Think of the moon as the greatest, remotest (inter)national park that Earth has, and one that only 12 explorers have even set foot in, and then imagine that we’ve seen everything worth seeing, and know everything worth knowing. I can’t.