November 24, 2013
The 50th anniversary of the tragic death of President John F. Kennedy has prompted examination of his presidential legacies and in particular, the role he played in our race to the Moon. In an op-ed, Rand Simberg opines on how space buffs magnify and distort Kennedy’s space legacy – that in fact, JFK really didn’t care one whit for spaceflight and only challenged the Soviets to a Moon race for near-term, earthly political purposes.
No one conversant with the history of the Apollo program could seriously doubt that the impetus for setting the goal of a lunar landing within a decade was driven primarily by geopolitical considerations, rather than by a romantic notion of colonizing the Solar System. But there’s a bit more to the story. Simberg’s piece fails to recognize that close, hands-on experience with the unfamiliar often changes attitudes and that prejudices evolve over time.
Upon taking office, Kennedy had little interest in the space program but like Eisenhower with Sputnik, intervening events abruptly forced a change in his outlook. In April of 1961 Yuri Gagarin orbited the Earth – the first flight of a human in space – engulfing Kennedy in a press feeding frenzy as a triumphant Soviet Union laid claim to one of the most important laurels of the space age. With recriminations still echoing throughout Washington, a second national security disaster emerged – the Bay of Pigs fiasco, a failed invasion of Cuba by American-sponsored anti-Castro exiles. The new administration appeared both inept and indecisive. The Gagarin space flight and the U.S.-backed invasion of Cuba occurred during the build-up of a devastating nuclear arsenal by the Soviet Union, amid bellicose pronouncements from its bombastic leader, Nikita Sergeivich Khrushchev – “We will bury you!”
Against this high-temperature political background, Kennedy looked for a significant technical project with which to challenge the Soviets. Kennedy thought that the large-scale desalination of seawater would help win the hearts of emerging “Third World” nations. A key consideration was choosing an effort that the Soviets could not win in the next few years. True enough, space was not his original choice but in order to give the United States enough time to build up and use its industrial and technical might (as well as provide payback on politically realistic timescales), Kennedy needed a challenging long-term national goal.
By assigning his Vice-President Lyndon Baines Johnson to look into possible space projects and report back to him, Kennedy had placed the decision in the hands of someone already committed to an accelerated and vigorous space effort. As Senate Majority Leader, Johnson – a vocal advocate for large-scale space projects – had previously helped shepherd the 1958 Space Act (that created NASA) though the Congress. It was Johnson who asked NASA’s James Webb and Hugh Dryden for options.
In a memo to Johnson, Kennedy specifically asked, “Is there a space program we can undertake and win?” With Johnson’s committee working closely with Wernher von Braun on what was technically possible in the near- and far-terms, it became apparent that the Soviets had a clear advantage in rocket boosters, making any attempt to match Soviet space accomplishments in low Earth orbit within the next few years likely to fail. On the other hand, if the U.S. were to pick a goal which neither country could achieve in the near-term, America’s edge in technology and resources might give them enough of an advantage to win in the long run – making it a real race.
A manned mission to the Moon emerged as the logical goal and was duly reported to the President. Kennedy was willing but hesitant – initial cost estimates for Apollo were on the order of $40 billion (this was in a saner fiscal era, when a billion dollars meant real money). Committing to spend that much, while not unprecedented, would give politicians of any stripe pause. Nonetheless, Kennedy moved forward with the Moon landing challenge, announcing his initiative in a special joint session of Congress on May 25, 1961.
So we now have a picture of a U.S. President, due to political circumstances, forced into and agreeing to a program he was reluctant to undertake. According to Simberg’s piece, this is the meaning of Apollo. What’s missing is that (as they like to say in Washington) Kennedy “evolved” in his beliefs. While initially willing (but cool) to the space program, his continued attention to “the race” over the remainder of his presidency suggests that he became more keenly interested over time. Kennedy, often guided by von Braun who would brief him on technical details, made multiple visits to the new NASA field centers. Kennedy became a “buff” – just like so many of us in the 1960s, drawn up in the excitement of the new space effort. Enthralled by events like a static firing test of Saturn engines at the Marshall Space Flight Center in May of 1963, he began soaking up space knowledge. He was hooked and in it to win it.
Kennedy’s speech at Rice University on September 12, 1962 has become inextricably tied to the American can-do spirit and cited whenever someone wants to capture the inherent romanticism and steely determination of the American effort. Apollo was not some tiresome political task or a pork-shoveling boondoggle to JFK. It was about winning a battle in a very real Cold War. It is in this context that President Kennedy’s September 1963 offer to go to the Moon jointly with the Russians must be understood. Yet, part of a speech given at the United Nations, has been interpreted to show that Kennedy was ambivalent toward space and was attempting to dodge the heavy political and fiscal costs of building the Apollo system. This notion has led some to surmise that had he lived, Kennedy would not have been as ardent a supporter of the space program as we space cadets believe that he was.
Words were effective weapons during the Cold War. At every opportunity, Kennedy contrasted the open, non-military nature of the American space program with the secretive and presumably bellicose nature of the Soviet one. This contrast was made explicit in Kennedy’s initial rationale for the lunar effort when he said, “Whatever mankind must undertake, free men must fully share” (emphasis added). By 1963, Kennedy knew Khrushchev’s mind-set as well as any foreign leader. He knew that Khrushchev and the rest of the Soviet Presidium would never accept a proposal for a joint lunar mission – they were suspicious, paranoid triumphalists, as their never-ending blitz of space propaganda illustrated. Moreover, at this stage of the space race, the Soviets were clearly ahead, having racked up a number of headline-grabbing “firsts” including simultaneous multiple crews and spacecraft, four-day long missions, and orbiting the first woman in space, Valentina Tereshkova.
By making an offer for a joint American-Soviet lunar mission, Kennedy appeared reasonable and forthcoming. “See? America has nothing but peaceful intentions for space. If our Soviet colleagues have similar intentions, as they claim, why do they not join us when we ask them to?” Jack Kennedy, a decorated World War II veteran and the consummate Cold Warrior, knew how to play the propaganda card. His offer did not represent a desire to back away from his U.S. commitment to space. It was a calculated move by the United States in the ongoing war of words, threats and confrontations that constituted the Cold War.
It’s tempting to retrospectively apply today’s intellectual template to past events, but by doing so it distorts the historical record. A look at Kennedy’s approach to the Soviet Union shows that his inclination was to confront them when necessary. The Bay of Pigs fiasco early in his presidency followed by the Berlin crisis led Kennedy to believe that Khrushchev and the Soviets must be opposed on the world stage, up to and including space. Initially cool to the very idea of human spaceflight, Kennedy took the concept to new heights of accomplishment by setting – and ultimately achieving – a goal that captured the imaginations of war-weary people around the world.
November 9, 2013
Should those on Earth control and restrict the use of off-Earth real estate or should people use and profit from what they find in space? We have conducted reconnaissance and mapping of celestial bodies for centuries using telescopes, orbital and landing spacecraft, and (forty years ago) explored it with people. Earth’s scientists have studied the returned data and we’ve dreamed of returning to the Moon and to new places where humanity has never set foot. Entrepreneurs and social engineers see a time in the near future when we will make that next step and they each hold somewhat different views — some want to develop and capitalize on their investment, some want to preserve and permit only limited access.
In a recent Popular Science article, Veronique Greenwood argues for having the Moon declared an “International Park – an off-World Heritage site.” And not just the Apollo sites but all 14 million square miles of the lunar surface. Greenwood likes the legal model of Antarctica, an entire continent that the nations of the world agreed to not develop but use solely for scientific study. Understanding that profit motives will be behind the drive to the Moon, she allows there may be carve-outs for mining (after environmental impact studies) but legally, the Moon will be protected as a preserve for history and science, serving as the template for human expansion beyond the Moon. She doesn’t want it “damaged.”
Greenwood’s concerns stem from her belief that humans (even when they’re careful) “tromp all over things” and that without government preservation and oversight, cultural artifacts on the Moon (such as the Apollo 11 crew’s “One Small Step” footprints and various “important craters”) are in danger of destruction. She argues that “because the Moon was part of Earth until 4.5 billion years ago” (a proposition not yet established), the United Nations should have legal sovereignty over its use and disposition. She notes that the 1979 Moon Treaty was never ratified (“flopped spectacularly”), a presumed “victim of the Cold War era.” In fact, the treaty’s “flop” had nothing to do with the Cold War – a concerted lobbying effort by various space advocacy groups (such as the L-5 Society) was largely responsible for the Senate’s refusal to ratify it. No nation that had space faring capability at that time ratified the Moon Treaty.
Her article illustrates that the “green” anti-development worldview has expanded to include opposition to unfettered space utilization. Because we’re not dealing with anything green, I suggest that we dub the lunar environmentalists “Grays.” Stemming from their belief that humans are harming the Earth, the Grays fear that it is not right to allow unrestricted access and development of the Moon. Fifty years after those interloping Apollo astronauts tromped on, drove over and kicked up a lot of dust on the Moon, a more enlightened humanity will return to peacefully – and carefully – explore its surface and, in the words of the National Park Service, “Taking only photographs, leaving only footprints.” If environmental impact studies allow it, some limited mining activity might be permitted, presumably to pay for these Luna Park overseers.
The analogy to Antarctica, beloved of academics, is of limited value in this instance. The reason nations of the world do not bother to mine or drill for oil in Antarctica is that there are alternative and cheaper sources of oil and minerals that do not require the costly build up of infrastructure in that challenging environment. Such is not true for the Moon; the alternative to using the resources of the Moon is to bring everything you need with you from the deep gravity well of the Earth. With launch costs of thousands of dollars per pound (and unlikely to come down significantly for the foreseeable future), it makes good sense to look for and obtain as much of the required “dumb mass” (i.e., air, water, shielding and propellant) needed for extended presence from “local” sources – the extraterrestrial bodies themselves. Launch from Earth should be reserved only for high information density items – high-technology equipment, instruments and people. The raw materials of space will provision us – and we need to learn how to do it out there, starting with the Moon. You cannot lock up new territory and then expect entrepreneurs to invest their capital in getting you there.
While Greenwood uses Antarctica as a model for the Moon, in my mind, a better analogy is Alaska, a vast area (656,424 square miles) of great natural beauty and abundant resources. Alaska serves a multitude of purposes, including mining, fishing, oil and gas production, tourism, recreation and settlement, as well as maintaining and protecting vast reserves of national and state wilderness. No one could call Alaska a decimated paradise or an industrial wasteland – it is an immense landscape with room for every imagined activity, commercial and non-commercial. It is a harsh place, yet one where self-reliant humans migrated for profit, play and its wide-open spaces. It also has the virtue of being part of a self-governing republic, not an “administrative area” controlled by international bureaucrats. And yet, even though the land has been developed and used, the people have conserved, protected and managed the landscape and resources of the state. But Greenwood points to the Antarctica “peaceful and scientific use of” model, whereby the U.N. would own and control the Moon, thereby setting a precedent for the rest of the Solar System. Talk about throwing cold water on pioneering outer space! Greenwood’s suggestions certainly do that.
Setting aside the obvious objection that the United Nations has not shown any particular management capability (nor does it possess the ability to oversee natural resources 250,000 miles from Earth), a more important objection to this proposal is the negative impact it will have on investment toward the development and support of commercial space activity. If advocates of commercial spaceflight think dealing with the federal government is difficult, they haven’t seen anything until they start dealing with a U.N. authority. Greenwood wants “important craters” protected from defacement by ATVs, but that begs the question as to who decides which craters are “important,” what needs to be protected, and who gets those limited mining rights? Would she leave these environmental assessments and commercial allocation judgments in the hands of U.N. decision makers and arbitrators?
The basic problem with the attitude of the Grays is that it is misdirected. There is no “ecology” to preserve on the Moon because there is no life there. The only thing that can be preserved is the Moon’s pristine state – an ancient surface unsullied by the tread of endless footprints. It would take tens of thousands of years, if then, (since few would live on the Moon) to put a footprint on every square meter of the lunar surface, an area greater than the continent of Africa. Even the most rare and valuable terrains on the Moon – the water-containing areas near the poles – are enormous regions, hundreds of square kilometers in extent, containing tens of billions of tons of water ice and other valuable deposits. As these materials are the most accessible and useful products in near Earth space, they are crucial to the creation of new space faring capability.
If the entire territory of the Moon is designated the property of Earth with U.N. oversight, we will handicap ourselves from becoming a space faring species. We must learn how to use what we find in space to create new capabilities. Even the most ardent developers would not object to preserving the historical sites of the first impacts of spacecraft on the Moon (Luna 2), the first soft-landers (Luna 9 and Surveyor 1), and of course, the site of the first human landing on another world (Apollo 11). But the rest of the Moon should be open to exploration, development and use. It is wrong to restrict the use and development of whole new worlds in order to assuage the overly emotional and misguided aesthetic sensibilities of the Grays, as opposed to opening up of a frontier that can be profitably used and enjoyed for the benefit of all humanity.
October 30, 2013
The Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE) spacecraft is currently circling the Moon. With the spacecraft safely settled into its observation orbit, the mission science team is busy testing and calibrating its instruments. This U.S. mission was designed to characterize the lunar “atmosphere” – the extremely tenuous zone of gases that vary in time in the space above the Moon. Technically called an exosphere, this region contains extremely low concentrations of a variety of elements and compounds, of varied origins and a largely unknown life cycle. LADEE is designed to monitor and characterize these species, with the goal of identifying the process and sources of the gases and how they vary with time.
Initially a precursor to human lunar return, LADEE was selected for development early in 2008, as we wanted to understand the lunar exosphere before the lunar environment was contaminated by humans. The LADEE spacecraft is designed to observe the Moon in its natural, pristine state. However, the very act of going to the Moon inadvertently (though briefly) modifies the lunar atmosphere. When a spacecraft arrives at the Moon, it uses its on-board rocket engines to brake into lunar orbit or to descend to the surface. These rockets spew large quantities of exhaust gas into space and as the vehicles get captured into the Moon’s gravity field, so too does this exhaust product.
From estimates drawn on the Apollo landings, the rocket exhaust expended from each Lunar Module temporarily doubled the total mass of the natural lunar atmosphere. This artificial addition of gases eventually dissipates, driven off by solar interactions and other complex effects. In time, the Moon resumes its normal state of near-vacuum. The creation of a temporary artificial atmosphere created by rocket effluent and its subsequent dissipation is imperfectly understood, except to the extent that we know that it happens. The one-month “commissioning phase” that the LADEE mission is currently experiencing was largely designed to ensure that the exhaust from the orbital braking burn of the spacecraft (and subsequent low-rate out-gassing from the spacecraft) is largely complete. We want to measure the Moon’s environment, not the products of the craft that brought us there.
But the U.S. will not be the only one conducting a mission at the Moon for the next few months. The long-planned Chinese robotic mission Chang’E 3 is scheduled for launch to the Moon in early December. Their lander mission will place a fairly large (1200 kg) spacecraft on Sinus Iridum in the northwestern quadrant of the near side, deliver a small roving vehicle and examine and measure the properties of the lunar surface over the course of several months. But before it begins its surface mission, the Chang’E 3 spacecraft will burn roughly 2600 kg of rocket fuel in the vicinity of the Moon’s exosphere. I have not seen any documentation on the fuel this spacecraft will use, but it is highly likely that it will be the chemicals unsymmetrical dimethylhydrazine (UDMH; H2NN(CH3)2) and nitrogen tetroxide (N2O4). These propellants are widely used in spacecraft because they are liquid at room temperature and can be easily stored in tanks for long periods of time (a requirement for long-duration spaceflight to destinations beyond low Earth orbit).
When UDMH and nitrogen tetroxide are burned in a rocket engine, they produce a variety of exhaust gases; the dominant combustion products are water (H2O), nitrogen (N2), carbon monoxide (CO), carbon dioxide (CO2), and a few trace species, including hydrogen (H2) and hydroxyl (OH). Expelled by a rocket nozzle, these gases rapidly expand in all directions in the vacuum of space. Because most of the burn occurs after the spacecraft has been “captured” by the gravity of the Moon, this rocket exhaust is also captured by the Moon. Thus, exhaust from an orbital or a landing vehicle becomes (temporarily) part of the lunar atmosphere.
If you’re thinking that this “rude” addition of alien gases will mess up the very delicate phenomena that LADEE was designed to map and measure, you’re correct – it does. You might even expect the scientists of the LADEE team would be very upset at this disruption of their carefully planned measurement strategy. But you would be wrong. This problem is actually an opportunity.
The coincidence of Chang’E 3 arriving at the Moon after LADEE has begun observations has developed into a serendipitous occurrence for lunar science. Because we don’t understand very well how exospheric gases are added to and removed from the Moon, what has landed in our laps is an unplanned (but controlled) experiment. A known quantity of gases – of known composition – will be added to the lunar atmosphere at a precisely known time, in a precisely known place. One could have not designed a better experiment to measure how this addition of material is distributed, how its distribution evolves over time, and how these expelled gases dissipate into cislunar space. Even better, LADEE will have almost a full month to monitor and characterize the lunar atmosphere before Chang’E arrives, thus allowing us to first observe the “natural” Moon and then the “contaminated” Moon and how the lunar atmosphere recovers from its defilement.
None of this was prearranged – the Chinese schedule their missions on the basis of their own time-table and programmatic needs (just as NASA’s lunar goals have changed over the last 5 years). But because of a fortuitous alignment of schedules, we have a unique opportunity to observe in real time how the Moon works. Hopefully, the Chinese will provide us with detailed mass numbers of their spacecraft and exactly what variety of fuel it carries, but even if they don’t, physics dictates a certain mass and volume of the exhaust gas and its composition will be measured by LADEE (allowing us to know the type of fuel used). China’s December lander mission to the Moon will provide our U.S. mission with a welcome bit of “traffic exhaust,” giving scientists the opportunity to learn more from LADEE than we’d originally envisioned.
October 4, 2013
If all goes according to plan in the next few days, the latest NASA robotic mission to the Moon will enter lunar orbit. Launched last month from the Wallops Island site, LADEE (for Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer) will spend the next few months orbiting the Moon. This small spacecraft will attempt to characterize and measure the lunar “atmosphere,” while also looking for dust that might be electrostatically levitated above the surface or thrown into ballistic flight by impacts.
Wait a minute. Did I say “atmosphere?” Isn’t the Moon renowned for its lack of an atmosphere? Indeed it is. In fact, the 10-12 torr surface pressure of the Moon is a better vacuum than we can achieve with even the most advanced equipment in Earth laboratories. (For comparison, sea level pressure on the Earth is about 760 torr, making the lunar surface pressure over one hundred trillion times less dense.) A better term for the tenuous gas near the Moon is “exosphere,” meaning free flying gas molecules that may or may not be gravitationally bound to the Moon. In such an “atmosphere,” there may be only a few thousand molecules in a cubic centimeter of space. This is very tenuous indeed.
LADEE is designed to investigate from where these atoms and molecules come. Presently, we think the lunar exosphere consists mostly of helium, sodium and perhaps argon atoms, each coming from a completely different source. Helium likely comes from the Sun, as the solar wind continually “breathes” onto the surface of the Moon. Some atoms stick to surface dust grains but many simply bounce off, randomly moving in the space above the lunar surface. Easy to detect, lunar sodium has been observed from Earth-based telescopes. It most likely comes from rocks vaporized by the continual rain of micrometeorites. At least some fraction of this vaporous sodium must hang around the surface, unable to escape the Moon. Argon might have a solar wind origin, but at least some of it comes from the natural decay of radioactive potassium in the lunar interior (potassium-40 (40K) decays to argon-40 (40Ar) with a half-life of a bit more than one billion years). Gases like argon, venting from the interior of the Moon, were observed by subsatellites left in lunar orbit by the departing Apollo spacecraft over 40 years ago (these small spacecraft have long since crashed into the Moon).
Although helium, sodium and argon are the principal expected components of the lunar exosphere, the LADEE team will search for other species. An interesting possibility is water (H2O) or its related species, hydroxyl (OH). One of the most surprising results of recent lunar exploration was the discovery of adsorbed (surface) water and hydroxyl on the dust grains of the lunar surface (observed by the Moon Mineralogy Mapper (M3) aboard the Indian Chandrayaan-1 lunar orbiter in 2009). Occurring in the form of a monolayer of molecules on dust grains in the cooler portions of the Moon, a clear water signal is best seen above latitudes of 65°, increasing in strength (i.e., increasing water abundance) toward each pole.
The surprise from M3 was not only the presence of water but observing that its abundance increases with decreasing surface temperatures. This means that water being made or deposited on the surface is in motion, with a net movement toward the poles. The same Chandrayaan-1 spacecraft also carried an impact probe with a mass spectrometer. During the probe’s half-hour descent to the South Pole, it passed through a cloud of water in space, just above the lunar surface. The water cloud at this high latitude had a density a hundred times higher than at the equator, providing additional evidence that exospheric water is in motion, moving from lower, hotter latitudes towards higher, cooler ones.
LADEE cannot directly measure this water in a neutral state, but if some process ionizes it (e.g., if a water molecule breaks apart into a proton and a hydroxyl by UV radiation from the Sun), it will be visible to the ultraviolet spectrometer aboard the spacecraft. If the process of water migration on the lunar surface is correct, we should be able to observe exospheric water and by measuring its density with time, track the water migration to higher latitudes.
LADEE will also tackle another controversial issue – the amounts and mechanisms of dust movement on and around the Moon. During the unmanned Surveyor lander missions over 50 years ago, a strange illumination or glow was observed by television for several hours after local sunset, just above the horizon. This phenomenon was termed “horizon glow” by surprised Surveyor investigators. At a loss to explain it, the team postulated that some mechanism was lofting dust up above the surface and this dust was scattering sunlight. Exactly how the dust was lofted was uncertain; some thought it must be fragments in ballistic flight from distant impacts, while others thought that it might be levitated by electrostatic force, thus “hovering” above the surface.
A few years later, just before his orbiting spacecraft emerged into the daylight side of the Moon, Apollo 17 Commander Gene Cernan observed and sketched an illuminated limb and “streamers” that could be seen extending into space above where the lunar horizon would be. At the time, this phenomenon was thought to be the same as that seen in the Surveyor pictures, although they have totally different scales (the Surveyor horizon glow must occur within a few meters of the surface, while Cernan’s horizon glow extended many kilometers above the Moon). Dust (probably of lunar provenance) is certainly involved in whatever causes this horizon glow.
As the Moon slowly rotates once every 708 hours, the line between the sunlit and dark hemispheres (the terminator) slowly moves across the lunar surface. The day and night hemispheres have different fluxes of electrons from the solar wind and thus, the presence of the terminator can induce an electrical charge in surface materials. It is postulated that this charge might levitate smaller dust particles such that they would hover above the surface. LADEE will attempt to detect and map this dust, both by searching for scattered sunlight with its ultraviolet spectrometer and via the direct detection of dust particles in flight with an instrument on the top of the orbiting spacecraft.
The issue of levitated dust is thought to be relevant to the future habitation of the Moon. If dust is lofted above the surface by the passage of the terminator, the particles could degrade clean surfaces and create a hazard for inhabitants of the Moon. Such a process could have major effects near the poles of the Moon, areas that are in the near-constant presence of a day-night terminator. Although it is unlikely that levitated dust on the Moon is an environmental hazard, we currently are working in near total absence of hard data. Thus, it makes sense to at least try to make some direct measurements of the dust environment around the Moon to assess the importance of this proposed surface process.
LADEE arrives in lunar orbit this Sunday. We wish it well on its mission to give us fresh (and welcome) data on a poorly understood aspect of lunar processes and history.
September 24, 2013
An interesting report in the Washington Post relates that the current Mars rover Curiosity has found no evidence for methane on that planet, a finding that contradicts some earlier reports of the presence of that gas in the martian atmosphere. The report goes on to say that this finding “disappointed” some members of the Curiosity science team. Supposedly after earlier studies detected methane in telescopic spectra, they had “high hopes” for a positive result from the Curiosity rover.
Various reactions to this revelation are interesting, as they suggest something about the current mania for the search for extraterrestrial life, as well as something about the ultimate rationale for our national space program. Whence comes this obsession and why does it drive our space efforts and dominate space news coverage? Science fiction dreams have long been a part of the space effort, with many working in the field receiving their first exposure to space topics via that medium played out in print, film and video. From bug-eyed Martians invading the Earth to slimy, acid-dripping killers stowed away aboard spacecraft, the obsession with extraterrestrial life took firm hold of the human imagination.
This sense of fascination is so strong that space advocates have tried to harness it as a way to justify (if not coerce) increased amounts of spending on the civil space program. After the end of the Apollo program, with its clearly geopolitical goals accomplished, the space program needed a new long-term rationale, one that would ensure its continuation over many years. Carl Sagan, an astronomer fascinated by the possibility of life on other worlds, emerged as the principal spokesman for the idea that searching for ET was the “true and good” rationale for exploring space. The dominant theme of his television series Cosmos was the vastness of the universe with endless possibilities for finding life “out there.” For a public television program, it was a huge hit (but to keep some perspective, in 1980 when the series first aired, it did not crack even the top thirty, which included such fare as Dallas, The Dukes of Hazard, and The Love Boat).
Seeking to justify federal spending on space, the Quest for Life Elsewhere (QFLE, as I shall call it) was enthusiastically adopted by the scientific community. As a slogan it was catchy, but effectively got nowhere in terms of policy influence until 1996, with the discovery of what was claimed to be bacterial microfossils in ALHA 84001 (a meteorite that on the basis of several lines of evidence, we believe comes from Mars). This rock has tiny features that resemble fossil bacteria as seen in Earth rocks. This discovery was considered sensational at the time and even resulted in a nationally televised Rose Garden statement by the President of the United States. More significantly for policy, the Mars scientific community parleyed that discovery into a program series of robotic missions, each one increasingly more ambitious (read: expensive) to be sent to Mars over the coming decade(s). This mission series was established outside the agency’s traditional lines of mission proposal and accountability systems and became (in effect), an “entitlement” for the Mars science community and JPL, who possesses the agency monopoly on missions to Mars.
A series of increasingly sophisticated spacecraft were then sent to Mars over the next few years, each one finding that the planet at one time had liquid water at or near its surface and that the climate of the planet has changed, perhaps many times, over the course of its history. But no evidence of extant or former life has been found. As portrayed in the article, this latest finding is another dashing of the “hopes” of the Mars scientists. Funny – I always thought that the job of the scientist was to describe the universe as it is and how it works, not to “hope” for a confirmation of one’s preferred hypothesis (gained through the eyes of a machine afforded almost human-like adoration).
Which brings us to my point above about the use of QFLE as a rationale for the American civil space program. The goal of adopting such a rationale is to ensure an enduring, long-term space exploration program. From a practical perspective, the danger of using QFLE as the primary goal for space is that if you do not find life, you’ve essentially failed and have probably written your programmatic obituary. To date, the Mars science community has pled for a verdict of incomplete – we simply have not yet gone to the correct place with the correct tools and techniques to verify what they “hope” to find. If this rationalization works, Mars exploration becomes an endless program – we can always say this, no matter wherever we go on Mars and whatever we find. In fact, the problem with that rationale is that such pleading may backfire. When most people think of alien life, they have images of ET in mind, not pond scum. If the public understood that’s what we are really looking for, I suspect that a lot of the support for this crusade would quickly dissipate (I believe much of it has already).
My objection to using the QFLE as a rationale for space is on a more philosophical level. Even if you finally do find martian microbes, what have you proven? There are virtually no modern scientists who do not (to some degree) subscribe to the materialist paradigm of life’s origins, in which given the right compositions, energy and environment, life will naturally arise and evolve. This is what scientists believe about the Earth and they most certainly believe it about other planets. So if we finally do find Mars microbes, either ancient or existing, all we would have done is to prove something that most scientists believe now anyway. The stridency of many scientists in their obsession to obtain “proof” of extraterrestrial life seems like other agendas are at work here, which I pass over without comment.
In science, new findings come all the time and it is highly likely that this “negative” result will soon be countered by some new and compelling “evidence” to the contrary. I think that a long-range strategic rationale to explore and use the Solar System requires re-thinking. A space program needs to return societal value for its cost. I believe that there is abundant value in making our near-term goal the creation of a flexible and permanent system that opens up space for many different and varied uses. Making the space program a Quest for Life Elsewhere is a prescription for failure and ultimately, termination.
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