Wednesday, July 04, 2012

Book Review: Blogging the Moon

I've had the pleasure of listening to Paul Spudis talk about his future vision for the moon several times, most recently at Marshall Space Flight Center, and this book--a collection of entries from his Air & Space Magazine blog--provides fleshed-out versions of arguments he makes in his standard stump speech. The short version of Spudis's take on the human future in space is simply to build capabilities for living and working in space, starting with the Moon as a base. Spudis makes the case that the Moon is the best place to start human expansion into the solar system because it's close, it's (scientifically) interesting, and it's useful. That's the short version. The longer version, addressed in various ways in this book, covers a variety of issues related to this cause, and it ranks with The Case for Mars, Mining the Sky, and The High Frontier as one of the major "visions" to be found in the space advocacy community.

As I noted in my earlier blog, there are several things I like about Spudis's vision for space development:
  • He keeps his development program affordable by keeping the process incremental, using a combination of robotic and human activities to get the various jobs done.
  • He concentrates on building technological capabilities and infrastructure that, while tested on the Moon, might be used at other destinations, such as asteroids or Mars.
  • He focuses on a target that we know how to reach and that has become a lot more interesting in the last 40 years (more on that momentarily)
  • He doesn't depend on hype or that overused word, "inspiration" to get the general public to support space--as he points out more than once, the general public really doesn't care about space unless there's something dramatic going on, and even then it's a 50/50 coin toss on whether they support what we're doing up there.
  • He ties his program to realistic policy concerns that are ongoing, not flavor-of-the-year: national security, science, and economic development--and the Moon can support all three.
What was curious to me was how much the blog entries in this book felt like "deja vu all over again." Writing at the height of the debate over and subsequent cancellation of the Constellation Program, Spudis's blogs covered a particularly painful time in my life, as I faced several personal stresses resulting from the fact that my professional life was in a bit of doubt. Aside from reading about events and arguments that I'd forgotten--purposely or otherwise--what was curious to me was how many of the issues, discussions, and arguments Spudis addressed about Constellation have reared their ugly heads today as I support the Space Launch System. Does our space program have a mission? Is a heavy-lift launch vehicle necessary to accomplish said mission? Where are we going to go next? The arguments haven't changed, and neither has some of the "attitude" involved. What makes today different from 2009-2010 is that we know that Constellation ended--so what now?

Spudis's answers to the the first three questions are no, not necessarily, and, not surprisingly, the Moon. He is not shy about his dislike of the dismantling of the Vision for Space Exploration, which he differentiates from the Constellation Program. He saw the VSE as a strategic direction, designed to establish a permanent human presence in space, while he sees Constellation as a vehicle program that didn't necessarily follow the intent of the Vision. It might not make some NASA strategists happy--like Robert Zubrin, he's not shy about criticizing the government space agency--but it is well worth reading as an informed opinion on the topic of space.

This book is more timely now, perhaps, than the original entries that were published in them because they were written as several lunar missions were just beginning to collect new information about that battered sphere in our sky, including Chandrayaan, Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO), the Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite (LCROSS), and others. The data that has come in from these missions--some of which is summarized in the video presentation included in the DVD at the back of the book--have made a solid case for water ice on the Moon. And water, as Spudis points out, is just about the most useful substance humans could find there, as it can be used for air, water itself, insulation material for habitats, and most importantly, rocket fuel. Spudis seems torn somewhere between frustrated in these entries, as he considers the current state of affairs unlikely to produce the vision he lays out, which is a permanent human presence throughout the solar system. Still, one never knows what will come next, or how the current program might be used to advance Spudis's vision.

If there is one disadvantage to the blog format of this book as opposed to the other big space-vision books I mentioned earlier, it is that the vision is not organized systematically. Often reacting to the events of the day, Spudis does not have the opportunity in a weekly blog to lay out a step-by-step argument for his vision. Still, his vision is there, and he makes his primary points again and again over the course of several years. If you want a more complete description of his approach to space development, you can always check out his website. I'd heard one person call Spudis a "one-trick pony," which is hardly fair, as his architecture is hardly simple. I might call his work principled or consistent, and he consistently concerned about our nation's future in space, as we all should be.

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