The recent spectacle of China's Chang'e 3 robotic landing on the moon has lead to a clamour in the United States for the world's biggest economy and most powerful nation to more aggressively pursue a moon-related space programme. Such talk will undoubtedly raise the spectacle of a new space race similar to that which took place between the US and the Soviet Union during the 1950s and 60s. But in the middle of an economic recession, with surely little to be learned from sending further probes to a satellite which is not remotely life sustaining, is the scientific community's call for the US to run more moon missions really justified?
I have written previously of my scepticism regarding space missions to Mars, wondering what benefit is really being garnered from these escapades. However, it can be asserted that this is something of a step into the unknown, at least Mars is a planet which could theoretically have sustained life at some point, and an entity about which there is a gap in our collective understanding.
It is nearly fifty years since human-beings first landed on the moon, and numerous unmanned missions preceded the infamous Apollo 11 landing. In short, we know a fair bit about the only satellite which orbits the Earth. Yet actually sending probes up there remains an incredibly complex and expensive operation which necessitates the extremes of human technology. While the idea that by now we'd be zipping around the universe at light speed, and the average family would have a spaceship in the back garden, akin to Mr. Spoon in 'Button Moon', was a particularly seductive one for sci-fi writers, there has been absolutely no basis for this in reality whatsoever.
Even those that defend the moon landings, who are passionate about the technological benefits that have been gleaned from them, struggle to cite really significant benefits. Professor Martin Ward, Head of Physics at Durham University, and a former consultant to the European Space Agency, when asked about the subject stated that non-stick frying pans had been developed as a result of the moon landings, while the Apollo programme assisted the development of computer technology and the miniaturisation of electronics. He also stated that rock samples have given the human race insight in the evolution of the moon and our own origins.
Let's ignore the non-stick frying pan. The benefits in computing and electronics were not specifically related to the moon itself. They would have been developed had there been any large investment in this field; if anything they would have been likely to have been developed more quickly with a focused remit, rather than as a result of attempting to solve the arcane problem of sending a probe into space.
I am also rather doubtful than any really significant breakthroughs regarding the origin of the human race have been gleaned from moon dust and rocks.
Manifest destiny and frontierism are fundamental parts of the American identity. The latter is cited in the introduction to the 'Star Trek' television series, and it is perhaps natural for the American establishment to view space as a challenge to be met head on. But in this age of trillions of dollars of government debt, of tens of millions in the US requiring food stamps in order to survive, is it really justified for the US to re-ignite another space race, when we have gained so little of substance from the previous moon landings?
My view is that the US government should concentrate on attempting to even come close to breaking even economically before any more taxpayers' money is poured into this frivolous black hole.
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