To the Moon, Alice!

By Sean Carroll | December 4, 2006 11:45 pm

NASA has officially announced its plans to put a permanent base on the Moon. This is all part of the Moon, Mars and Beyond program that has sucked the life out of astrophysics research at the agency. But going to the Moon would be incredibly exciting in its own right, if it didn’t cost any money. (Nobody knows how much it actually will cost.)

The plan is to first finish building the International Space Station using the Space Shuttle. The Shuttle is scheduled to be retired once and for all in 2010 — so I gather that we won’t actually be doing much with the ISS once we finish building it. Meanwhile, NASA will be developing a new set of spacecraft, featuring the Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle that will be launched on Ares rockets. The goal is for the new system to be functional by 2014, if not earlier.

Orion Crew Vehicle

And then on to the Moon — reaching there by 2020, hopefully with a continually-manned station by 2024. Not much is known about what such a base would look like, although there is some idea of putting it somewhere that the astronauts could replenish some resources through mining. The South Lunar Pole is apparently an interesting destination, perhaps near Shackleton crater.

It’s frustrating to be so lukewarm about the Great Human Adventure in Space, about which I’d much prefer to be enthusiastic. But nothing about the operation inspires confidence, much less wonder. NASA Deputy Administrator Shana Dale described the program in this tired bit of management-speak:

“This strategy will enable interested nations to leverage their capabilities and financial and technical contributions, making optimum use of globally available knowledge and resources to help energize a coordinated effort that will propel us into this new age of discovery and exploration.”

Do people really talk like that? It sounds straight out of Dilbert. Complete with numbingly bullet-pointed Powerpoint presentation!

Maybe the concerns are misplaced, and NASA will be able to aggressively pursue human exploration of space without sacrificing their unique contributions to cutting-edge astrophysics. But I’d be just as happy to let NASA concentrate on the science at which they excel, and leave the space-cowboy stuff to the X-prize folks.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Science, Science and Society
  • Maynard Handley

    And so part one of China’s great USA-head-fake bears fruit… You tell the US you plan to send a mission to the moon, and in good Pavlovian fashion they jump up and throw a trillion dollars down the toilet — most amazing leverage in money spent on politics ever. (Of course Iraq is, in a sense, a better deal for China bcs that’s money not only wasted, but that actively generates hostility to the US. But I don’t think anyone is claiming that that particular adventure was inspired by China, so it doesn’t meet the rules of this category.)

    Twenty five years from now, when the US is reduced to the UK circa 1955, China will be laughing their asses off as they point their telescopes at an American flag “flying” on the moon surrounded by an abandoned ghost town. Heck, it might make a good intro shot for the nightly national Chinese news.

  • Amara

    I wonder if NASA is ignoring the Advisory Board’s Roadmap. There are issues regarding lunar dust that anyone designing a moon base should consider as well.

  • davidg

    Forgive my ignorance of space politics. But it seems to me that space exploration and science should be funded seperately. Why give NASA a buget of $20 billion a year and ask them to do science missions and space exploration missions? One’s always going to be stealing from the other, as it seems both are so desired. Why not allocate a certain amount for science and a certain amount for exploration? then one won’t have to suffer at the expense of the other. Has this been considered before? and why can’t this be done?

  • greg

    “It sounds straight out of Dilbert.”

    I find Dilbert funny because its so true. Realy Realy. PHB are everywhere. I stoped reading the quote as soon as i got to “leverage”.

    I agree totaly with you. I’m not a great fan of maned missions because of there ROI (hehe). People cost a lot to put in space and when they die, we seem incabalble of doing anything for several years incase someone else mite die. The arguments for manned missions is thin at best. I mean how many mars rovers can we launch per shuttle flight? And lets not forget the money hole that is the ISS.

    But once we are good at space then i want to go. So don’t think my anti manned missions means I don’t want any. Just not the expensive worthless crap we get at this point.

  • Ed

    Ah yes, welcome to the world of bureaucratese from anyone “running” (read ruining) NASA. I hear this excremental drivel all the time as I work at a huge bureaucracy.
    Science, especially basic science, should be funded separately, and funds for basic science greatly increased. Unfortunately, the brain stems “running” this country are shortsighted, wanting only immediate results (read “money”), never being able to see the long-range benefits. If only wisdom could evolve upwardly in our species.

  • Arun

    “It sounds straight out of Dilbert.”

    Don’t mock the results of the free market. :) This language is straight from the meeting halls of the Fortune 500. has a good example.

  • Arun

    Of course, corporate speak was probably invented and fine-tuned in the hallowed halls of Harvard Business School and the like.

    A parody is here:

    A glossary is here:

    Isn’t it nice there is something that you can’t blame on government?

  • Arun


    1. Is very long baseline interferometry with antennae on the moon and the earth a feasible and a useful thing?

    2. Is there useful astronomy in the area of the spectrum that we use for communications? If so, would not the far side of the moon be an excellent shielded spot for observatories?

    3. Are there any advantages to instruments anchored to the moon over instruments in earth orbit?

  • Lee Kottner

    I’m with the folks who call for separate funding for basic science and the manned missions. They’re two very separate kinds of projects with totally different benefits. And why not join forces with the X-prize people? In its early days, NASA was the original home for space cowboys. Now, well, you see what’s happened since the bureaucrats took over. It happens to every organization, but on that note, I’ll say again what I said about going to Mars: let business help pay for it and assume both some of the human risk and the capital risk. There’s plenty of precedent, though I’m not sure the biotech industry is all that great an example. At least in this case nobody will be trying to patent my genes.

  • Darrell

    “But once we are good at space then i want to go. So don’t think my anti manned missions means I don’t want any. Just not the expensive worthless crap we get at this point.”

    Space is difficult. Just like any difficult endeavor, from motorcycle racing to cosmology, you have to constantly work at it in order to improve or even maintain. If you do nothing, waiting until you think all of the required tools are sufficiently perfected before you make a go at it, then you won’t start accumulating real world experience until then, meaning that all your tools have been developed without the benefit of real world experience. That’s not a good way to create complex systems.

    Now, I am not saying that I think NASA’s new manned exploration program is a good thing, I don’t know enough about it to form a solid opinion. What I do know about it has me feeling pretty much as Sean has expressed above. But I do feel that we need a manned space program that progressively, and constantly, pushes the limits of what we are capable of so that we are constantly gaining experience and evolving our capabilities. Within reason of course, which is open to limitless debate. I don’t think unmanned science missions should, or need to, suffer either. There is always competition for resources but I think it is possible to balance the two so that reasonable proponets on both sides are satisfied. Both sides will benefit from the improved capabilites of the other side. For example, HST would not be the success it is today if it were not for manned servicing missions. Future space based observatories are sure to benefit, if not require, manned servicing missions, and some of them won’t be in earth orbit.

  • Joseph Smidt

    I bet Stephen Hawking is excited about this

    I would like to know when NASA starts shooting for Mars and other of the
    planets. Google mars will be pretty cool when Mars is sufficiently inhabited:

  • PK

    Arun asks: Is very long baseline interferometry with antennae on the moon and the earth a feasible and a useful thing?

    Possibly feasible, but for gravitational wave detection (the prime use for VLBI) you need an additional moon, because you need two legs in an interferometer. Two celestial bodies make up at most one leg. Of course, if we do put an observatory on the moon, we need the ability to go there and repair it (remember the initial trouble with the Hubble Space Telescope), even though a moon base does not need gyroscopes.

  • thm

    I think the real reason that the Bush administration is pushing a manned mission to the Moon, and then to Mars, while at the same time not really funding it, is to starve NASA’s climate research budget.

  • Amara

    Another comment: if you hear NASA officials say that we can use the resources on the Moon such as WATER for our lunar bases, then don’t believe it. Few planetary scientists believe that there is water on the Moon to use (and it is significant that no subsequent missions have confirmed Clementine’s findings).

  • Manas Shaikh

    That money can be put to better use I guess! Maybe for investigating alternative fuel?

  • jack

    Many years ago I attended a class on project management. One of seemingly turgid topics was “How to Write a Mission Statement”. What made the topic interesting was the example chosen to illustrate the principles of “specific and measureable” — John F. Kennedy’s famous pledge to reach the moon:

    “I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth.”

    Sorta puts Ms. Dale’s “statement” in its proper context.

  • Jim E-H

    I’ll be interested to see what becomes of this “plan” now that Rumsfeld is gone. I grew up in the Apollo era, so I love manned exploration, but this administration has really put a damper on that enthusiasm, especially with the damage to science from they’re “we’ll use cost as an excuse to justify cutting anything we don’t like, but without actually cutting overall spending.” Rumsfeld had a long history of favoring a military space force, and ever since it was announced, I’ve been suspicious that development of the “crew exploration vehicle” was just cover to put that plan into motion. With him gone, it might lose some support, or it might continue for at least the next two years from bureaucratic momentum or the administration’s refusal ever to admit error.

  • spyder

    My father was one of the principal design engineers, and project manager of the first stage, of the Saturn V launch vehicle and the three types of engines used in that system, and i am intimately aware of the J2, as well as the solid rocket booster assembly. It will be interesting to see how the Ares is going to be thoroughly tested prior to its use. As recent history has shown, NASA would rather launch and then discover problems, than actually put systems through complete R&D testing; something about money and expenses. One miscalculation (has that happened?) and the entire program goes up in a fireball over Florida.

  • PK

    I agree: Manned space exploration and astrophysical research are two quite different things and should be funded separately. However, just because NASA wastes money on ISS and manned exploration does not mean that that money should go to non-space related destinations. If you want to put money into research for cleaner fuel, I say take it out of the defense budget: They use much more of it, and they have vastly more money.

  • Sean

    Just a word about the idea that science and exploration should be funded separately: nothing is funded separately, really, no matter what they might be pretending at any specific moment. At the end of the day, Congress makes a budget, and there are a bunch of reconcilliation committees that sit down to do the difficult balancing between the ideas of the House, Senate, and OMB, not to mention individual agencies and countless lobbyists. And everything is on the table. Not even just NASA — the NSF budget, for example, has been held back by OMB types saying “Sorry, we need that money for Moon/Mars.” As long as this ungainly beast needs to be fed, science money will be hard to come by.

  • Thomas Larsson

    A somebody who lives in nation with less high-flying ambitions, I find it quite cool that my college friend and överföhs (how do you translate that? Frosh initiation boss?) will become the first Swedish astronaut on Dec. 7.

  • Arun
  • Arun
  • Alexey Petrov

    A bit off topic (but related): maybe the simplest way to make sure that the linear collider is built in the US is to make sure that the goverment of China expresses intersest in building it there…

  • AgnosticOracle

    The big question I have about the whole moon thing is the cosmic ray problem. So far I haven’t seen a real solution proposed. The solutions I have seen seem to fall into to categories. The first focus only on solar flares and temporary shelter, the second talk about ways to mitigate extreme exposure. This article seems a good example of this.

    Maybe I’ve missed it but I haven’t seen a proposal that deals with long term radiation exposure (several chest x-rays worth of radiation every day). I fear we are going to spend trillions of dollars only to find we bought a “permanent” station where the staff can only stay a month and half of those develop cancer.

  • Cat

    Sean, if you were to help start a campaign to remove space science from NASA and give it to a new or existing agency (perhaps a new NSF) you will find much support. The space science agency will conceive, design and direct all space science projects with a mandate and a budget separate from that of NASA, who will return to its original mandate of aeronautics and human space exploration. Development, launch and operations may be contract out to the best parties. It should not be difficult to build a compelling case to Congress. But first there must be great consensus from the scientific community.

  • Jeff

    I just came back from a conference on doing Astrophysics from the Moon at STScI, where they have graciously webcast almost all of the talks:

    I’ve already put in proposals to do astronomy from the moon in fact, as part of the Constellation program. I don’t think the moon’s ideal by any means for most applications, but it’s not bad for some.

    the science community (not just astrophysics, need to get a much more coherent strategy together to deal with the Mars/Moon initiative (the Vision, or, as I sometimes call it, the Hallucination). About half the people at this conference whined that the Moon program was stealing all their science money (partially true, but, that doesn’t help a damn thing), the other half tried to argue that if we’re getting a free ride there anyway, let’s make the best of it. (but be careful not to be tricked into paying your way to the place you didn’t want to go to anyway).

  • Peter Erwin

    I find it amusing that people are suggesting the creation of an entire new bureaucracy to do things that NASA already does. This would necessarily mean a fair amount of duplication, since one of the things that NASA does is figure out how to get things into space and keep them operating there (and communicate with them and so forth), something both astronauts and research satellites need. This hypothetical new agency would have to duplicate (or recreate) much of the expertise currently within NASA.

    Japan used to have three separate aerospace agencies: the National Space Development Agency (in charge of heavy-lift rockets, satellite and ISS development, and training astronauts), the Institute for Space and Astronautical Science (mostly space science research, including X-ray astronomy satellites), and the National Aerospace Laboratory. In 2003, they were merged into a single agency, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, at least partly in the hopes of achieving greater efficiency. Perhaps this will turn out not to be a good idea, but it indicates that at least one country that had experience with multiple, separate civilian space programs decided it wasn’t such a good idea.

    As Sean points out (#20), none of the NASA-related budgetary work takes place in a vacuum. In addition to the sort of thinking that might go on within OMB, the decisions on funding both NASA and NSF in the House take place in an appropriations subcommittee that considers NASA, NSF, EPA, Housing and Urban Development, and the Veterans Administration.

  • Nicholas

    I am curious why some serious astrophysical advances could not one day come from the Moon.

    Personally, I certainly must step aside for Sean and other more qualified opinions, but while I have also been very strongly against a mission to Mars, nearby asteroids, etc. (The machines do it better!) I think a moon base could provide the infrastructure we really need to begin a more practical exploration of space.

    After all, outlandish ideas such as a space elevator are really just a means to create a cheap way to get into space! If we had a moon base, would we not significantly cut the expenses of all future missions (manned or otherwise?)

    A base could eventually create its own probes or rockets. Or maybe an enormous space telescope that does not have all those issues of an atmosphere as dense as the earths!

    This is all relatively speculative, I admit. But it seems to be a step we must undertake at some point…



  • Ray Gray

    Let us never forget the “space race”: USA vs. USSR.

    The times we are in now have more than two space capable nations. Shared technology would lower the cost of a lunar base. The Apollo Program ended with the US & USSR on the same mission.

    2024 is almost 2 decades away. The balance of World Power will shift by 2024. Apollo was a fast track program. This newest lunar mission program is a slow track plan. The American people are not going to buy into this slow plan. Moreover, it is the American taxpayer, after all, who foots the bill for new foot prints on the lunar surface.

  • William Croft

    ISS astronauts lose 2 to 3 percent of their bone mass per month in space. One of the reasons missions are limited to 6 months. Now project that to 10 or 12 months on the moon, 30% bone loss? Multiple years on Mars?? And the bone mass is not recovered completely when they return to earth.

    Our fantasies about living on low gravity worlds are just that, ungrounded and unrealistic. Much better to spend NASA money on Hubble and its progeny.

  • Cat

    Pete, it would indeed be more than amusing if the creation of a bureaucracy is all there is. It would be dumb. The question is not expertise/personnel – these will be allocated/transfered to whatever agency doing the job. The purpose is to create a different mandate for space science not subservient to the broad and sometimes conflicting mandate of NASA, which has too many balls to juggle and controlled by too many accountant-managers who thought going to the Moon is another business Powerpoint case study. (See:

    The leadership of a separate administrator should bring the budget fight for space science at the level of Congress, under a separate mandate. The politics in DC is such that only this way could deliver a better priority and funds allocation irrespective of NASA big-ticket woes or successes. There should not be an increase in bureaucracy – the same bunch of people will be working under a different mandate and budget more finely tuned to science.

    For example, NASA recently pushed back launch date of the James Webb Telescope for 2 years as a result of struggling with the costs of the Moon exploration program. Under a separate agency and mandate, this telescope will be designed and constructed under a different priority, budget, with the flexibility to select launch contractor and launch date.

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  • Jeff

    Cat, you said:
    “For example, NASA recently pushed back launch date of the James Webb Telescope for 2 years as a result of struggling with the costs of the Moon exploration program. ”

    Everything I have heard from within NASA is that JWST is delayed due to terrible mismanagement and technical problems — not funding issues. They are over $4B already anyway! Talk about one project stealing all the funds from other astrophysics missions…

    And I disagree that a separate science-from-space voice in D.C. would have better results than a unified NASA voice where science is part of the constituency. Because, as Sean said, NASA has to fight against NIH or Dept. of Transportation or Homeland Security as well, at that level, having as powerful a lobbying organization (ie. NASA in it’s behemoth glory) probably serves us better. A smaller niche lobby group would be less likely I think to fight against the “big boys” at the OMB level. And then that means that science just has to fight to claim it’s fair share of the NASA budget (against the Moon, or aeronautics engineering) instead of against congressional budget issues (homelessness, education, terrorism).

  • Maynard Handley

    Alex Petrov says
    “A bit off topic (but related): maybe the simplest way to make sure that the linear collider is built in the US is to make sure that the goverment of China expresses intersest in building it there…”

    I assume he meant it as a joke, and I took it as such, but then I read this on Peter Woit’s blog

    The New York Times today in its Science Times section has a very interesting article by Dennis Overbye entitled China Pursues Major Role in Particle Physics. It tells some of the history of particle physics in China, describes the BEPC accelerator in Beijing which has just had a luminosity upgrade, and discusses the role China may play in future accelerator projects, especially the ILC. A US physicist who sometimes works at BEPC, Frederick Harris, is quoted as saying “The rate China is growing, this is something they could contemplate hosting in 10 years.” Perhaps the future of high-energy frontier accelerator projects really will be in China.

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About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] .


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