Thursday, July 16, 2009

The Moon: Past and Future

Today marks the 40 anniversary of the Apollo 11 launch, which rocketed Armstrong, Aldrin, and Collins to the moon. Ned Potter at ABC has a great article on whether the public then felt and still feels that the flight to the moon was worthwhile:

In a July 1967 Harris poll, two years in advance of the first moon walk, 43 percent of Americans were in favor of the effort, 46 percent opposed -- hardly a rousing endorsement. And in 1970, a year after the landing, 56 percent said it had not been worth its allotted $4 billion a year for nine years.

. . .

Since 1979, the number of people saying the moon landings were worth the cost has risen from 41 percent to 65.

. . .

Polls have consistently shown about 60 percent of the American people support the space program -- though the number always drops into the 40s when people are asked about the cost.

Given my enthusiasm for space exploration, I was surprised by the low levels of support from the public. As the article points out, NASA expenditures are less than 0.5 percent of all government spending. There are worse ways to spend government money. Space exploration is a public good that likely wouldn't exist without government support. It has yielded huge scientific benefits and created jobs. Furthermore, just as Columbus couldn't have known he'd discover a new continent, we don't know what benefits future space exploration might precipitate.

I am thus excited about NASA's Constellation program, which has the goal of sending astronauts to the moon by 2020, and possibly later sending astronauts to Mars. The above video shows a computer-generated conceptualization of how the Constellation program will work. Two rockets will fly into earth's orbit, and parts from both will meet up and fly to the moon. Pretty cool stuff.

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