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September 20, 2005

Back to the Future

Transterrestrial Musings has a link to pictures — big ones — of NASA's return to the Moon spacecraft. Wait a moment: where have I seen these before? It looks (not just from the pictures, but from what details have emerged of the plan) like this is going to be a pure rework of Apollo, but NEW! and DIFFERENT!. In other words, the marketing guys have taken over the planning.

In a sense, it's kind of inevitable that NASA should go this way, and it's not altogether bad, either. Inevitable because the chief determinant of the mission's structure is not technological, nor based on long-term planning, but political: this is just more flags and footprints. Admittedly, more footprints made over more days, but essentially the same idea. There is apparently some desire to work towards a long-range capability to sustain a lunar base, and to try out technologies for a manned mission to Mars, but Apollo had those too. Not altogether bad, because the primary new idea is combining Earth Orbit Rendezvous — now well-practiced, unlike in the Apollo days — with the rest of the Apollo structure; thus it is likely that this plan will work quite smoothly, assuming funding and focus are maintained.

On the other hand, it's not likely that this program will survive more landings than Apollo, and for much the same reasons, and it's exceedingly unlikely that this will lead to a permanent manned presence on the Moon or Mars, or at least, not such a presence that is available to ordinary (non-government employee) mortals. Nor will the cost structure be likely to approach the low numbers that will be necessary to make an outmigration possible.

So, pretty, and I'll be watching, but I'm still betting on the private space industry to be the ones to make human settlement of space possible.

UPDATE: Interesting and somewhat related discussion at Econbrowser. The comments are good, even with massive amounts of missing the point.

Posted by jeff at September 20, 2005 6:24 PM

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Excuse me. I need to go check the clocks and make sure the seconds aren't actually counting in reverse.

Posted by: Brian Medcalf at September 20, 2005 10:34 PM