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Ways of the World

Carol Stone, business economist & active Episcopalian, brings you "Ways of the World". Exploring business & consumers & stewardship, we'll discuss everyday issues: kids & finances, gas prices, & some larger issues: what if foreigners start dumping our debt? And so on. We can provide answers & seek out sources for others. We'll talk about current events & perhaps get different perspectives from what the media says. Write to Carol. Let her know what's important to you:

Monday, July 20, 2009

"Fly Me to the Moon . . . . "

Commemorations of today's Moon Anniversary are oddly nostalgic. We went there and did that 40 years ago, and we haven't been back in 37 years. Fifty-four percent of our current population have been born since then. Is this merely a historical event?

At present there is much forward-looking activity at NASA, among other countries and in the private sector. So in honor of the occasion of human beings touching another land not on Earth, we'll focus just briefly on the aims and benefits in that work. We want to bring it to your attention because the lead-times are long, and there's danger that these projects can get lost in the budgetary shuffle. A new director for NASA, retired Marine General and former astronaut Charles Bolden, took office just on July 17, even as a commissioned study of human space flight priorities is in process.

The most recently articulated NASA goal is a manned outpost, a kind of colony, on the moon by the early-to-mid 2020s, just about 15-or-so years from now. Toward that end, two lunar spacecraft were launched last month; one of those, the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) returned pictures last week of the vehicles left on the moon by the Apollo program. A first test of Ares-1, the launch vehicle for taking people back to the moon, is due later this year. Besides NASA, there are similar active efforts in China, India and Russia.

We were surprised to learn that there's a long-run, but very important resource on the moon, an isotope called helium-3. There are only about 10 kilograms of it on Earth, but substantial quantities on the moon. When fused with deuterium ("heavy hydrogen"), this chemical produces massive amounts of pollution-free energy; it is nuclear, but not radioactive. Roughly 25 tons, a single space shuttle payload, of helium-3 would produce enough electricity to power the entire United States for a full year. The technology for generating the fusion reaction is at least a generation away, but several sources we read cite helium-3 as a significant provision that can be available in quantity by the time the supply of petroleum on Earth plays out. That alone might justify the trip back.

But there's more to space exploration than this. The scientists remind us that most fundamentally, we can contribute to our own evolutionary longevity by establishing human settlements in other places. 2009, Darwin's anniversary, seems like an appropriate year to consider that. People have always explored, if only to see what's on the other side. Our work on the International Space Station has shown that it is well named, "international"; isn't it interesting that we work so well there with Russian astronauts, even flying in each other's shuttles. After our own shuttle is retired next year, we will depend on them and others to transport our people and goods there until our next mission begins in 2015 (or so). Reaching out beyond ourselves is so vastly important. It lifts our spirits and heightens our vision. We can use that anytime, but especially right now.

A couple of sources:
Harrison H. Schmitt. Return to the Moon: Exploration, Enterprise, and Energy in the Human Settlement of Space. New York: Copernicus Books & Praxis Publishing Ltd. 2006. Schmitt's tone is perhaps overly definitive, but this is the book currently on looking ahead in space.

Paul D. Lowman, Jr. "Why Go Back to the Moon?" NASA. January 14, 2008. See the display, too, of products in everyday living that have developed out of the space program.

Stephen J. Dubner. "Is Space Exploration Worth the Cost? A Freakonomics Quorum." January 11, 2008. Well, Dubner did pick all of his commentators from the same side of the argument. But their arguments sound good to us!

Dean Irvine for CNN. "Mining the Moon for a Nuclear Future". December 18, 2006.



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