Well, we’ve all been somewhat underwhelmed by space since Apollo. There have been some highlights like the Viking landers and the Martian rovers and of course Voyager and Hubble but in nearly forty years that seems a poor return. Oddly enough all the things I’ve mentioned have been unmanned. Manned ventures such as the Shuttle have largely been white elephants. The cost of refurbishing the Shuttle between flights means it costs more to shift payload than good ol’ fashioned rockets like the Soviets use. Rockets that Yuri Gargarin would still feel at home around.
Of course the whitest of white elephants is the thumping great $150,000,000,000 heffalump that is the International Space Station. What does that staggering sum buy you? It buys you three people 217miles above your head doing pretty dull research. In any case a lot of the planned experiments have been cancelled. None sounded too exciting either, so never mind about that because it’s really about politics anyway. The Russians recently put the first Malaysian in space as a sweetener on a deal for fighter jets.
Nothing about the ISS has a wow factor. If anything it’s slightly depressing, really. So many years, so much moolah and all just to get three folk with PhDs about as far away from me as I am from Edinburgh. As an ongoing project the vastly cheaper (about $5 billion) Hubble Telescope has been of much more public interest. It’s also been very important scientifically – vastly more so than the ISS – but that isn’t what I want to type about now. It’s its impact upon the popular imagination. I’m sure it’s encouraged millions of kids to take an interest in the stars and people just love those pictures. People with no interest in science buy glossy coffee table books of the pictures. It’s been a massive success and will be replaced by the even bigger James Webb Telescope in 2013 or so.
So, you can imagine my delight when I read about the possibility of something really big. The Moon is a perfect observing site (better than Earth Orbit) and pictures from a 50m dish would be staggering. Astronomers would be killing each other to get time on it. But hey, blood on the carpets of the Academy isn’t what bothers me here. The modern environmental movement is often traced back to the images taken of Earth by the Apollo astronauts. The images from this ‘scope might trigger a similar shift towards “space-consciousness”. Remember this isn’t a one shot deal like a lunar landing, those pictures would just keep on coming. And what images they would be. This ‘scope could…
…record the spectra of extra solar terrestrial planets and detect atmospheric biomarkers such as ozone and methane. Two or more such telescopes spanning the surface of the Moon can work together to take direct images of Earth-like planets around nearby stars and look for brightness variations that come from oceans and continents.
Now that’s stuff to excite anyone. What if they were to find an habitable planet a reasonable distance away? What would that do to this planet’s space-consciousness?
Much more I’ll wager than two Yanks and a Russian and a tank of tadpoles in a collection of surreally over-priced ISOÂ shipping containers the equivalent of a 4 hour drive away. Oh, and if they really want to foster international relations might I humbly suggest that $150 billion would pay for a heck of a lot of student exchanges and the like.