Saturday, 19 December 2009

Aim high

I've been reading this story about a proposal to launch a probe to reach and study Ligeia Mare, a sea of liquid methane on Titan. It's hard to see how this will get past the beancounters, particularly given the state of public finances, but full marks to the study team making the bid. What is a little sad is that the plan isn't more ambitious. Let's send people to Titan!

I'm old enough to remember watching the first moon landing. Yes, the endeavour to put men there was politically driven, rather than in a spirit of adventure for adventure's sake, but nevertheless plans were made, problems solved, ambition achieved. If that endeavour had been continued, we could by now quite realistically have had a well established colony on the Moon. I can't say it would be entirely self-sufficient, but it could have been well on the way.

So what, you may say? What benefit would we enjoy from the existence of Moonbase One? How could we justify the enormous expenditure of taxpayers' money that could otherwise be dedicated to more obvious necessities such as quango chairmens' remuneration, large-scale government IT projects and the war in Afghanistan?

[More on 'loaded questions' in a future posting but, hey, it's my blog.]

This is an easy one to answer. During the high point of the Apollo series, around 400,000 people worked for NASA or their contractors. OK, great for employment, then. The 'space race' is what drove miniaturisation in electronics, so you have it to thank for your computers, sat navs (don't start me), MP3 players... well, anything that's small, clever and hi-tech has Moon all over it. I have no idea what the total economic yield of all that development has been, but fortunately neither have you. Could we just agree that it must have paid back many times the investment?

Over and above all that, if we'd established a colony on the Moon - or, by this time perhaps, on Mars – then if things go entirely tits-up down here on Earth for whatever reason, we would have a toe-hold somewhere else.

One of the things that has made our species successful (in its admittedly short existence) is that we're inquisitive, adaptable, restless dreamers. Our ancestors set off on journeys around the world in sailing ships, often with no maps, no real idea where they were going or what they would face, and ready to spend months or years in the endeavour. It would be sad to think we'd lost that spirit of adventure. The developed world has had the charge of decadence laid against it many times, and seldom has the developed world taken that at all seriously. Perhaps it should.


Since drafting the above, I came across a much more authoritative and cogent analysis here. I think I'll do a post sometime soon on the notion that research on a subject is most usefully done before issuing an opinion on it. I can't see it catching on, but one never knows.

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