Friday, January 27, 2012

When My Optimism and My Cynicism Collide:

A lot has already been said about Newt Gingrich's promise of a moon base; however, I still want to talk about it because I sort of agree with the two ways this statement has been met-optimism and cynicism. First lets go with cynicism, it should be obvious this is shameless pandering from a politician who will hedge back and forth on science insulting it or complementing it depending on when it suits him. I am almost positive that if he was elected he would either forget all about or make a half-hearted attempt which wouldn't work. I think The Crux had one of the best cynical responses, and I have to agree with all of their points; however, I don't have to like it.

We should always meet all claims of politicians with skepticism, and just because they pander to our interests (or our dreams) doesn't mean we should throw away our rational thought and embrace them. I do not think many, if any, space professionals, students, or knowledgeable public took these promises at face value, though judging by some of the comments r/space the interested public did, and that's not good. It is very easy for politicians to play to people's emotions on a subject like this, and we have to be careful and not be taken for a ride. So it is a good thing that many people like Neil deGrasse Tyson are coming out to temper expectations. Newt's plan is unworkable, and anybody who pays attention to the space industry knows it won't work.

One last thing about Gingrich, in an early speech he criticized NASA as an overblown bureaucracy and said they have had "failure after failure" well maybe NASA, like any government agency has a lot of red tape, but are the Mars Exploration Rovers failures? They have outlasted their warranties by an incredible amount. They were supposed to last three months, and their mission duration is now measured in years.

Last year when I told my friends, family, and coworkers that I had an internship with NASA they were astounded and impressed. Why? Because NASA is on the frontier of science, they are the dream. It is the only government agency that continues to inspire everyone from small children dreaming about the moon and stars  to college students planning their careers in STEM fields to old men and women thinking about the changes they have seen and the changes yet to come. If you dismiss NASA, you are ignorant of what they have accomplished and I pity you for living in that darkness.

Okay, on the optimistic side I want a moon base! A moon base is an amazing idea, and those of you interested in engineering or space science should go wide-eyed and misty just thinking about it. That was my initial reaction when I heard Newt's statement, then I crashed back down to reality.

However, I couldn't stand the hyper-cynical reactions many people had after the speech, many people who are fascinated with space had a visceral reaction to the speech. And understandingly so, because here is another politician offering something we love for votes with no intention to follow through. Though I can see some good coming from this speech though, maybe a lot of Americans may remember that they love space and they want this base. When they remember they may come looking for information on it, and be exposed to some amazing science and learn a thing or two (or hundred).

Let's not let our cynicism overcome us, this is important and a permanent human presence on another world is something we need to do, not just to prove we can do it, but to give us the ability to do amazing science and to start our manned exploration of the solar system and beyond. And if you don't think our government is investing enough in exploration write to your representatives and tell them so, and if they don't vote the way you want, vote them out. At this point, if we can change a few minds on capital hill that would be an improvement.

An article on io9 has some amazing reasons why; however, I want to go farther. We don't know much about the moon, there is only so much remote sensing and a half a dozen manned missions can tell us. What we need to really understand the moon are boots on the lunar surface. We need planetary scientists doing field work to further our understanding of the moon and how the Earth-Moon system formed. In addition, this will be valuable experience for Mars. Not just in how to live and work in the isolated environment of space travel, but also the development of new scientific tools and field techniques that will be needed. Planetary geologists will need new ways of taking measurements because a space suit isn't as easy to move around in as a flannel shirt and cargo pants. We have been studying the Earth for centuries and we still don't understand every geologic process on it; we need field planetary geologist to map the structure and features of the moon, and then we need field versions of every imaginable discipline of planetary science to really understand the moon. Then we will have to do this for every planet or moon that we want to understand and we can land on, and the adventure will be incredible.

I would love for Gingrich's plan to work, because by the time the moon base was up and working I would be finished with my doctorate and I still young enough to work there. I want that, we live in the future and we should have a moon base.

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