Discovering the moon’s secrets – but why?
17 September 2007
Japan launched its first mission to the moon a few days ago in a quest to learn more about the moon and its origins. There is even talk of a space race with China and India due to launch their lunar probes within the next year – and you can be sure that whatever anyone else does in terms of space exploration the Americans will do bigger and better in the future. But there remains the question of why? Stick with me because I think I know the answer.
One argument is that the innovations made in space programmes are drivers in technological development. I believe, for example, that a squash racquet I once owned owed its existence to space technology and it is often repeated that the electronics within a modern car is more sophisticated than the electronics which took the crew of Apollo 11 to the surface of the moon – although I think this says as much about the bravery of the early astronauts as it does about the cleverness of today’s car designers.
In fact you could argue that with the more obvious competition in such sports as Formula 1 motor racing, there is enough thought going into the development of ‘extreme’ electronics without a space programme. And secrets in Formula 1 only exchange hands for a mere 100million Euros rather than the multi billions that space exploration costs.
And are the end goals really that important. The Japanese, as one part of their mission, are trying to definitively establish how the moon was formed. This is interesting. But is it billions of dollars interesting?
Or conspiracy theorists like to return to the 1980’s ideas of the ‘Stars Wars’ programme. The reason for control of near space is for military reasons. For all that there may be a shred of truth in this in that everyone likes to keep an eye on everyone else, I don’t buy into this bigger theory either. I believe that the world has learned its lesson from the cold war about a new arms race – there is neither the stomach nor the budget to let it happen again.
So why do governments embark on such unworldly projects when there are plenty of more fundamental projects that you could argue are more worthy of financial attention – like feeding and educating the world’s population for example.
Well I simply think it is a case of toys for the boys. And if you are a G8 government, you are a Big Boy who can afford some very Big Toys. If you doubt the wisdom of this simplistic observation, then reduce this to an individual level. I look around at all my peers and they all, like me, drive cars that are designed to go faster than they are legally allowed to, own MP3 players that hold more songs than we want to listen too, have phones that are smaller than we can comfortably use… and so on. We love the gadgets. We love the technology as much for the fact that it is there and we invented it, as for the actual usefulness of it.
In space exploration it is the journey and the adventure that is more important than the end result. And, if you are of a certain age like me, our imaginations have been fired by TV shows like Star Trek (the proper ones with the bad acting and cheap sets - not the more sophisticated follow ups), so we buy into it. Maybe there is a genuine argument for these astronomically expensive space programmes, but I am yet to hear a compelling one. I think the truth is that what we like is that the human race is doing such extravagant experiments – what we might actually find out is of lesser significance.
On the other hand, maybe in a hundred years from now the last shuttle will leave the parched and lifeless surface of this planet and the passengers will be saying ‘I knew there was a good reason for all that investment – that Tim Fryer didn’t know what he was talking about!’
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