Thursday, August 18, 2005

New Race to Moon Really Isn't

Some of you are old enough to remember the Space Race of the 1960s. It was a race to the moon between the United States and the Soviet Union. It was spurred on with the surprise launch of the Soviet satellite Sputnik in the late 1950s.

We all know the outcome of that race, and many of us can remember the moment the green flag was officially dropped. In 1962, Pres. Kennedy gave our nation the challenge of sending a man to the moon and bringing him safely home to earth before that decade was out.

On July 20, 1969, his goal was reached with the landing of the Eagle lunar lander on the surface of the moon. The U.S. had won the race. But after our success, the Soviets denied they were even in the race, accusing America of needlessly risking human lives on the moon when robots would suffice.

Today, there is a new space race, of sorts. It is between the U.S. and the remnant nation of the Soviet Union, Russia. But this time, Russia is likely to win.

Again, the race is to the moon. But while NASA remains marred in bureaucratic red tape and budgetary matters, Russia has found exciting new ways to fund its future missions to the moon.

It’s a total irony. The thing that brought communism to its knees was the bureaucratic nightmare that was inherent in the communist system. While the Soviet economy was trudging along at a snail’s pace, the vibrant U.S. economy out-classed it at every turn.

Now, NASA’s lunar plans are bogged down by the federal bureaucracy while Russia has taken its cue from good old-fashioned Western capitalism. It has contracted with Space Adventures to send two tourists to the moon by 2010.

Each tourist must pay $100 million for the privilege to orbit the moon, not land on it. If successful, future flights may even send tourists to the moon’s surface.

Space Adventures, working with the Russian Space Agency, was the company that sent the first tourist to the International Space Station.

It’s a bold plan, but it is also cutting edge capitalism. That’s why a similar public-private partnership between NASA and a private contractor might be worth pursuing at full throttle.

The new race to the moon is barely a race. It won’t even be close if Russia’s plans stay on track, because the U.S. won’t be ready to send anyone back to the moon until at least 2018, if then.

One reason is because NASA is building the next lunar mission from scratch, using new technologies, some of which haven’t even been developed yet. On the other hand, Russia will use stock equipment and yesterday’s technology to accomplish the task.

While I’m all for using advanced technology whenever possible, I also see no need to reinvent the wheel. By the time the next moon mission is ready to go, most of the people who worked on the first moon mission will be old and gray, or dead.

When all the people who know how to send us to the moon are gone, we will have no choice but to rediscover how to get there.

It has always been a mystery to me how we, as a nation, could have progressed so far so fast in the area of space technology, and then let it all slip away.

It took us only 8 years to get to the moon the first time, once we decided to go. That was more than 40 years ago. Pres. Bush has set a much more modest goal of returning to the moon by 2020.

We’ve decided to go to the moon again, which is good. But this time it will take us 15 years to get back. Is that progress?

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