Fifty years ago, a boy in India listened to the radio as Apollo returned to Earth, and was inspired. (credit: NASA)
I still remember—although details are somewhat cloudy now, the gist of it is still clear as bell —the night when my teen and toddler brother and sisters, my father, some workers on the farm, and I sat around a fire, on a somewhat cold night, in the middle of a jungle, and with an occasional indication of a panther passing through the farm, listening to an old decrepit Phillips radio, battery operated as there was no electricity either. Television was still too far away and we were too poor to afford it even if it was not! It was the late 1960s in Western India, on my father’s farm, and we were all very excited.
We were trying very hard to listen, amid heavy static, to the live broadcast of a NASA capsule splash-landing in the ocean, after a journey around the Moon. We were amazed and awestruck that NASA and the United States could send a craft hundreds of thousands of miles and still have it come back and land in a pre-designated, three-mile-radius area—and do that safely.
Our respect for what the US could do, which was already fairly high, increased immensely. NASA was amazing, and it symbolized the United States for many around the world.
What a country, this America! What incredible people! It was hard to control the desire to come here, study aerospace, get a PhD, become a rocket scientist, and work in this field.
The Soviet Union also did spaceflight but would announce its ventures after the fact, not to belittle what they achieved. Not the US. I thought, “This is where the next stage of evolution of human beings is occurring”—an intellectual evolution. It was very exciting. It was very satisfying. It was transparent. And it was not just NASA. America at that time was also abuzz with many creative questions, with anti-war movements, the counterculture revolution, and with people’s free right to pursue the sometimes unlikely answers.
Americans then, and more so of the generation today, do not realize the immense amount of goodwill this created worldwide, with great intangible benefits for years to come. When the Apollo 11 team visited India in 1969, people there received them with the largest audience ever in Azad Maidan. The American transparency made the whole world feel like we did it, the whole humankind.
What happened to that excitement, that spark, for humanity’s expansion into space? It did go away but it may just be coming back. Exactly 50 years later, we have a chance to build a virtual railroad now to Moon, Mars, and beyond.
Building a railroad line that connected the United States coast-to-coast was advocated in 1832 when Dr. Hartwell Carver published an article in the New York Courier & Enquirer advocating building a transcontinental railroad from Lake Michigan to Oregon. In 1847 he submitted to the US Congress a “Proposal for a Charter to Build a Railroad from Lake Michigan to the Pacific Ocean,” seeking a congressional charter to support his idea. The first transcontinental railroad was soon built from 1863 to 1869 in three sections—somewhat south of Carver’s proposal. It used mostly Asian-American and Irish-American labor, with numerous deaths and regrettably little credit.
Exactly one hundred years later and almost in same length of time, we built the pathway to the Moon with Apollo. Now, 50 years later, the time now has come for us to build this railroad for the Moon, Mars, and other destinations in the Solar System, with Americans of all genders, race, creed and religion participating and receiving credit when due, in a sense righting the wrong of 150 years ago. It can be done. It is ready to be executed. It is an exciting time in more ways than one.
If we combine the inspirational and technological aspects of our past with the recent discoveries, it becomes all the more clear that this time we need to go there to do specific things. These include learning how to live in low gravity and no atmosphere but also how to extract one of the most important ingredients of life, water, the existence of which in large quantities was confirmed only recently. This water ice, which can be decomposed into rocket propellants potentially using solar energy, becomes the most important aspect for going anywhere else in the solar system from the Moon directly, with its smaller gravity well requiring much less fuel to escape. This, combined with the experience gained there, would make Mars, Europ,a and asteroids full of precious metals easier to visit. Surely this will take decades, but we need to start somewhere. In this sense water ice will prove to be more valuable to humanity than if gold were discovered on the Moon.
We also today have the availability of reusable first stages of Falcon Heavy and soon the New Glenn with the potential for reducing the cost by a factor of five to eight by docking several upper stages in orbit with these cheaper reusable rocket flights (see “Six-pack for Mars: A railroad to the Moon and Mars”, The Space Review, September 17, 2018.) With this paradigm shift we can even have hundreds of people living there, albeit for a few months at a time, working on in situ resource utilization (ISRU).
Last week, India’s Chandrayaan-2 lifted off for its voyage to the south pole of the Moon, where the water ice is the most abundant. China’s Chang’e-4 landed on the lunar farside in January. Israel, Russia and Japan are to follow suit. Let us together have friendly competition with other countries as they land on the Moon and work towards ISRU.
We need to be there as soon as possible to access this lunar water ice resource, and this administration has noticed that, which is a very good thing: very prescient and propitious. This is the first time in a long time that an administration has been keenly interested in doing what our rocket scientists and engineers want. Yes, it is a challenge. Let us attack it with enthusiasm as we did fifty years ago, not pessimism.
And we went to the Moon in in the 1960s with lesser computer power than we have today in the smartphone in the palm of our hand. Can we not do this in less than five years, especially with all Americans helping as equal partners? When again are we going to have this synergy of so many favorable factors at the same time? Let us help NASA by creating the public support.
This time we are going there to stay and work. It is not a redo of what we have already done. Been there? Yes. Done that? No!
Note: we are temporarily moderating all comments subcommitted to deal with a surge in spam.