Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Fly Me to the Moon

You have to give Elon Musk credit, he certainly likes to dream big.  The owner of SpaceX announced yesterday that he plans to send two people on a flight to the moon--in less than 18 months from now.  Musk says he has two passengers who are paying "a considerable sum of money" to take part in a flight that will blast them off from Earth on a path that will swing around the moon and return them home--all in about a week.

For anyone over the age of 50, Christmas Eve 1968 probably sticks out in your mind.  That was the night the crew of Apollo 8--Frank Borman, Jim Lovell and William Anders--became the first humans to orbit the moon.  They were the first to see the "far side" and they were the first to see an "Earthrise" over the lunar surface.  The live broadcast back to Earth from lunar orbit is iconic--as the astronauts took turns reading from the Book of Genesis, and the image of Earth just floating in the vastness of space really put an incredibly tumultuous time in our history into perspective.

Apollo 8--and all of the Apollo missions (until Americans got bored with going to the moon)--galvanized not only the United States but the entire world.  Those men represented "us".  Yes, we made sure to put USA on every single item we took up there--but those missions captured man's innate sense of exploration and discovery.  "We" were going to the moon "with them".

The problem I have with the SpaceX moonshot is that it doesn't have that same sense of collective adventure and achievement.  This is going to be two rich folks taking an incredibly expensive joyride just because they can afford it.  Musk refused to identify his "astronauts" yesterday--saying only that they are "not from Hollywood"--which means we can rule out Oprah, Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks.  He added that they will undergo training to survive the trip--but all control of the spacecraft will be done automatically from the ground.  No one will be "flying the ship".

Which is another thing I don't like.  Most of the Apollo astronauts were military combat or test pilots.  They were selected for their ability to handle pressure, think on their feet, react in an emergency by automatically following the training they were given before the trip and they fully understood the science that went into getting them to the moon and back.  Their training took years with actual "stick and rudder" simulations.  That's why Apollo 13 made it back to Earth when the odds were that all three astronauts on board were going to die in space.  Does Elon Musk really expect someone with no such background to perform with the same aplomb if SpaceX has a "major malfunction"?

Of course, all of this is talk.  The rocket needed to attempt this moonshot hasn't been tested--and the crew capsule has never carried a person into space yet.  Plus, Musk has made splashy headlines before by announcing very aggressive timelines for the development of new technology--and usually he doesn't meet them.  So his 50th anniversary of Apollo 8 target date will likely be missed as well.

And what famous line should our space tourists use as they pray the 21-year old coder that programmed their spaceship's lunar orbital injection firing sequence goes properly?  "That's one long trip for a man.  One giant bill for a rich guy".

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