Shoot for the Moon

Here are two responses to the Apollo moon landings. First, Richard Nixon’s famous address on the optimism that the moon landings inspired:

Because of what you have done, the heavens have become a part of man’s world. As you talk to us from the Sea of Tranquility, it inspires us to redouble our efforts to bring peace and tranquility to Earth. For one priceless moment, in the whole history of man, all the people on this Earth are truly one.

The moon landings are probably the foremost example of what can be achieved when humans endeavour to co-operate. It is a story that has everything: from the insights of Gallileo and Newton; the imagination of Jules Verne; to the Leadership of Kennedy; to the bravery of Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins; to the scholarship at MIT that built the computer guidance systems on the Apollo craft; to quick thinking of Jack Garman and Steve Bales, who made a correct, key decision regarding some obscure computer error codes, as Neil Armstrong’s Eagle hovered over the moon’s surface.

However, the poet Gil Scott-Heron was not impressed. He penned this indignant plea to spend the money on something different:

Was all that money I made las’ year
(for Whitey on the moon?)
How come there ain’t no money here?
(Hmm! Whitey’s on the moon)
Y’know I jus’ ’bout had my fill
(of Whitey on the moon)
I think I’ll sen’ these doctor bills,
Airmail special
(to Whitey on the moon)

While it is surely worth a few billion dollars to bring mankind together as one, it is a lofty and imprecise ideal. Scott-Heron’s words ring in the ears, and anyone who is eager to journey back to the moon in our lifetime, or perhaps even to Mars, will have to justify the expense.

As I have said before, I begin with the idea that if one is going to design and build rockets, it would be more satisfying if we were to put astronauts in them, rather than nuclear warheads. It would also be more exciting, and (I think) more healthy for the collective human psyche. Spending several billions on “an ego trip” (as Bob Marley sang it), is a reprehensible thing when compared to the need for schools, a health system here in the UK, or AIDS medicines and mosquito nets in Africa. But compared to Trident, which is designed for the singular purpose of destruction, it is easier to argue that it would be money well spent.

Cancelling Trident and creating a bona fide British Space Programme would surely be an easy task, since the skills required for one project are easily transferred to the other. There is a place for rocket scientists and computer guidance systems engineers. And surely submariners would make perfect astronauts, accustomed as they are to spending long periods of time sealed in claustrophobic capsules?

Supporters of the nuclear deterrent remind us that for Britain to maintain an influence on the international arena, we need to be members of the nuclear ‘club’. Much of the argument is over what strategic advantage the submarines give us (if any), and whether it is relevant when our arsenal is dwarfed by that of the United States. Clearly if we were to cancel Trident in favour of a space programme, that programme would fare better politically and economically if it had some strategic importance too. Indeed, although the American’s cited the noble causes of ‘discovery’ and ‘wonder’ as the justification for their Apollo Programmes, the scientific and military imperatives were just as strong – As were the propaganda benefits.

One strategic project could be a replacement for the Galileo Project, the European satellite-navigation system that intended to rival the USA’s Global Positioning Satellites. The Galileo Project is in crisis, and it needs to be either replaced or reinvigorated. OK, so it is not quite an Apollo Mission… but the creation of a strategic technology that can be used in peace-time as well as war, seems to be a more imaginative side-step for a country like Britain, and certainly a better use of our rocket fuel. Once we’ve succeeded in that arena, we can set our sights higher, to the stars.

Earthrise, as seen by Apollo 15

8 Replies to “Shoot for the Moon”

  1. Well, yes. But as you say, Trident is not for the singular purpose of destruction. I believe it is hoped by everyone, including its designers that it will never need to be used for such a thing. As you yourself point out, it is as much for the deterrent aspect as anything else. It is better to have a small weapon against a bully than no weapon at all.

    But as an alternative way to spend the money, sending two or three people to the moon for the “wonder” of it would be an inexcusable waste. The world already has a gps system, why do we need another?

  2. The world already has a gps system, why do we need another?

    The current GPS system is only accurate to 10 metres, I believe, and is wholly controlled by the Americans. Gallileo was an attempt to create one controlled by the Europeans, and it would actually be accurate to the metre.

    Trident is not for the singular purpose of destruction.

    You mean it can sing songs as well? It is designed to do one thing, which is launch a rocket, and all that rocket can do is explode and break stuff, lots of stuff.

    My point is that, as a step towards disarmament, why not have some other technology which we can use as a powerful bargaining chip against bullies? One that doesn’t have armageddon as its end-point. Galileo is the first thing that comes into my head, but there must be others, especially concerning energy. A giant space-bourne magnifying glass that harnesses solar power, perhaps?

    I also think that there is something in this phrase I’ve latched onto, “collective human psyche”. I don’t think that “wonder” is such a poor reason to act, and (coupled with good, inspiring leadership) I think there would be less-tangible benefits to a space programme – just as there are less tangible benefits to the current NASA activities. The argument for nuclear deterrent seems horribly circular. The argument for orbiting the earth less so – to my mind anyway.

  3. “The current GPS system is only accurate to 10 metres, I believe,”

    Then why does Tom Tom work?

    ” and is wholly controlled by the Americans. “

    Which isn’t remotely a problem unless you have a problem with Americans.

    “Gallileo was an attempt to create one controlled by the Europeans,”

    See above. I have a much greater problem with the “Europeans”, for which we should substitute the more accurate description “those who rule the European Union”, wasting MY money on a system which is unnecessary (in that GPS already does it just as well), redundant (in that GPS does it at all), for which they want to charge for user access (where GPS is free), and for which the main rationale is a highly intrusive road charging scheme. In short, they have spent a decade taking EU taxpayers money on a system that will enable them to charge EU citizens even more.

    ” and it would actually be accurate to the metre.”

    And they are also planning to make it available to the Chinese.

    If you don’t trust the Americans, I’d trust the Europeans and the Chinese a damned sight less…

  4. But the Americans also have nuclear weapons, and we trust them, then surely we don’t need our own deterrent, do we? If the British are spending twenty billion pounds on Trident, that is also a case of them spending YOUR money on something we don’t need!

    And wouldn’t providing the Galileo system to the Chinese be precisely the sort of power we would like to have over them? We could then threaten to turn it off/withdraw usage if they misbehaved…

    As I say above, this post is not a defence of the Galileo system as it currently stands. Rather, I am saying that if we are going to spend billions on expensive, powerful, strategic military hardware, then astronauts and navigation systems are a better payload than nuclear weapons. Can you think of any other alternatives? I might suggest that even a Coca-cola sign would be better…

  5. Actually, the gps system is accurate to the pin-point. The Americans scrambled it though for the public use, limiting its accuracy to 10 metres or whatever it was. I think that TomToms work because this restriction is no longer in place.

    Cleanthes is half-right – it being controlled by the americans is not actually a problem…unless the americans have a problem with you. And I’d say that puts one in a potentially rather vulnerable position, esp. given their track record.

    I don’t think that “wonder” is such a poor reason to act

    Well, tell that to the people in darfur, in palestine, in iraq, etc etc. Wonder like that is a luxury that the majority of people on this planet can ill-afford, being caught up as they are in the rather more pressing matter of survival.

    Let us not forget that the man-made “wonders” and magnificent feats of engineering, art, technology and so on in this world were largely built upon slave labour, using largely appropriated resources. We already know that fabulous things can be achieved by abusing others – isn’t it time to prove that such things can be approved in an ethical way – ie not by pouring billions of pounds away while millions of people are starving and dying unnecessarily? I just think it’s pretty sick.

  6. Well, tell that to the people in darfur, in palestine, in iraq, etc etc. Wonder like that is a luxury that the majority of people on this planet can ill-afford, being caught up as they are in the rather more pressing matter of survival.

    All the places you mention are suffering as a result of man-made conflict. Perhaps some other worldly human achievements might mediate in those conflicts, just as art and music do. “Wonder” is in the same moral space as arts funding, I suppose…

    Crucially, I am not arguing that money should be taken from education programmes, or health services, to pay for such endeavour. I am saying that money should be taken from Trident to pay for it. You may retort by saying that the money from Trident should be spent on education and health services… but that never seems to actually happen. I think my space proposals have more chance of success.

  7. As far I as know, Tom Tom and the like work because they assume that the user is bound to the road system, therefore they can fit the less accurate location information they calculate from the GPS signals on to the road features from their map database.

    It is still difficult to achieve centimetre accuracy with consumer grade receivers because this level of accuracy is only achieved using “survey-grade” equipment – by post-processing the received satellite location information, usually using another fixed GPS receiver as a reference point. Both receivers would store the actual signal data received from the GPS satellites as opposed to a calculated summary.

  8. The issue with GPS being controlled by the Americans is that they can at any time insert algorithms (or whatever) into the system, scrambling it for anyone without the right codes to use it. That may not be a problem at the moment but with everything from air control to to sat navs becoming reliant on it, it could be problematic in the future.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *