A Return to the Moon and Mars As Well

By: 
Al Jacobs

The date was July 20, 1969, when the first humans, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, set foot on the surface of the moon. The mission, dubbed Apollo 11, had its impetus some eight years earlier when, on May 25, 1961, then-President John F. Kennedy gave an historic speech before a joint session of Congress, announcing his goal of putting a man on the moon by the end of the decade.

The president’s vow to engage in a space project of momentous proportion did not occur in a vacuum. Since the end of the Second World War in 1945, the United States and the Soviet Union remained locked in competition for both military and political dominance of the world – a situation known as the “Cold War.” With the U.S. development of the atomic bomb, successfully employed in August of 1945 to force Japan’s surrender, it became clear superior technology held the key to world dominance. Thus, when on October 5, 1957, the Soviet Union successfully launched the world’s first artificial satellite, thereby inaugurating the “Space Age,” it appeared the U.S. government, military and scientific community were caught off guard by the Soviet technological achievement.

Following our initial 1969 moon landing, overseen by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), established in 1958 as an independent agency of the U.S. Federal Government, our nation engaged in a perpetual series of space projects. These included successive moon missions, development of a space shuttle designed as a partially reusable low Earth orbital spacecraft to transport all sorts of things around, establishment of satellite systems, interplanetary probes, a space telescope, and creation of an International Space Station. In addition, a variety of our satellites have been launched over the years for such tasks as close observation of our solar system’s planets as well as other bits of space debris. In recent years the emphasis reverted to searching for water in every possible location of the universe as evidence life may exist somewhere. It now appears there’s no task too insignificant that a project can’t be developed to pursue whatever is conjured up.

Those who embrace the concept of unlimited exploration of the cosmos should understand the initial purpose of the space race. President Kennedy’s mission was not born out of the explorer sprit. Rather, it represented a desperation bid to catch up in a technological race the United States appeared to be losing. The USSR clearly beat us by launching the first satellite into orbit just three months after Kennedy’s inauguration. For him it meant Cold War competition. “I’m not that interested in space,” he told his NASA administrator in a private meeting, where he made it clear that space priorities other than a first-ever lunar landing meant little to him.

Where are we now on this 50th anniversary of the moon landing? NASA has been celebrating the memory of Apollo 11 for months, with a steady stream of archival photos, together with footage of the astronauts posing on the lunar surface with the American flag. And in the spirit of this historic reinstitution, the Trump administration announces its intention of returning to the moon. But a simple mission to prove we can again do what we did before is but the introduction. As President Trump tweeted this past June: “For all the money we are spending, NASA should not be talking about going to the Moon – We did that 50 years ago. They should be focused on the much bigger things we are doing, including Mars, of which the Moon is a part.” Apparently Trump has been enamored of the Mars-mission since he took office, and once asked a NASA official whether the agency could put people on Mars by the end of his first term.

My compliments to the president; he’s a true visionary. His implied desire to establish a self-sustaining colony, thereby making humans a multiplanetary species, is inspiring. However, those persons who choose to live on the Red Planet will find it somewhat less inviting than the French Rivera. Inasmuch as it’s some 48 million miles farther from the sun than is Earth, it’s a good bit cooler. With temperatures ranging from a high of about the freezing point of water to lows approaching –200°F, it’s considerably less hospitable than our South Pole, where the all-time record low on June 23, 1982, reached only –117°F. Obviously Mars is not a place you’ll enjoy leisurely Sunday strolls. In addition, since its thin atmosphere is mostly carbon dioxide, you’ll not find it very breathable either. Exactly how the inhabitants our chief executive envisions will reside there can possibly function – or what they’ll do for a living – somehow escapes me.

What also escapes me is some justification for the many projects NASA pursued over the past years. One coming immediately to mind is the obsession shown by their Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California, on the planet designated Kepler-452b. They maintain they’ve found “an Earth-sun twin system” with the potential for “liquid water on the surface … that could mean life.” Though this may seem enticing at first glance, it must be revealed our “twin” is not exactly next door and therefore ripe for discovery. It resides in the Constellation Cygnus, approximately 1,400 light years distant. Nonetheless, the Kepler project, thus far costing $550 million, will continue to function as planned, with each successive discovery lauded as another important victory for science. Except for providing grants for selected beneficiaries and salaries for a lot of chosen people, it’s difficult to describe exactly how the average tax-paying citizen is somehow benefitted from this government expenditure.

And while we’re searching the heavens for life in the universe, NASA suggests one of Saturn’s moons, Enceladus, may harbor an ocean below its surface, with hydrogen gas pouring into it from hydrothermal activity on the sea floor. It’s possible the gas might provide a chemical energy source for life, so suggests researchers on the project. And so the quest for life goes on, with no bit of trivia too insignificant not to be cited as a basis for renewed endeavor. There’s naturally a problem. In addition to water, life also requires sources of energy to survive. With Saturn and its satellites some 887 million miles from the sun, with an average surface temperature –288 degrees Fahrenheit, thus ruling out sunlight as the source of energy, we must relegate any carbon-based life forms to the subsurface. Any forms of life encountered will not resemble the creatures from Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds. Instead, they’ll be primitive and lackluster.

As for governmental involvement, it’s understandable why NASA is enthusiastic. They’re under presidential orders to land humans on Mars by 2033, and NASA-funded engineers are studying a way to build potential human habitats there by producing bricks from pressurized Martian soil. The legislation, funding the federal government through September 30th, 2019, will give the agency $21.5 billion – an increase over last year’s budget of $20.7 billion and much more than the $19.9 billion they asked for on February 15, 2019. With many jobs on the line, any funded activities they engage in guarantees employment, irrespective of whether anything of consequence transpires.

And President Trump’s eagerness to plant an American flag of the surface of Mars is equally unfathomable … unless, perhaps, you recognize more clearly just what such an event signifies. An article I just came upon by Peter Baker, the chief White House correspondent for the New York Times, appears to have captured Trump’s perspective, as he reports: “It’s his chance to channel his inner John F. Kennedy – to make the sort of bold promise that appeals to his own sense of greatness and wrap himself in a part of Americana akin to baseball and apple pie.” As explanations go, it’s truly splendid … in that it qualifies as the most unintelligible statement I can ever recall.

A final comment: A recent Los Angeles Times article on the Apollo 11 mission states that the past five decades reveal “fascination, frustration, futility, and an unrequited romance.” Concerning the moon, it specifically asks: “When are we going back?” After reading the article in its entirety, I couldn’t help but wonder why the question asked was not “Why are we going back?”

Al Jacobs, a professional investor for nearly a half-century, issues weekly financial articles in which he shares his financial knowledge and experience. Al can be contacted at al@abjacobs.com.

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