Newswise — Texas A&M astronomer and physics expert Nick Suntzeff has been involved with space research for almost 30 years, and spent 20 years as an astronomer in Chile, where he helped co-discover dark energy. He offers his thoughts about the 50th anniversary of the moon landing and what’s ahead for the U.S. space program.
Q: In your opinion, what was the best thing about the U.S. landing on the moon? Was it that we did it first, or that anyone could do it all?
A: For one wonderful moment, people could look up at the Moon, knowing that humans have reached out to the stars. And for this one moment, the whole world was united across all borders, religions, and races: we were on the Moon. Yes, it was the U.S. that came first to the Moon, but as the plaque on the Apollo 11 lander read: "Here men from the planet Earth first set foot upon the Moon, July 1969 A.D. We came in peace for all mankind.”
Q: There’s talk about putting a lunar base on the moon. How difficult will this be?
A: The International Space Station (ISS) costs about $6 billion a year to maintain, and the U.S. contributes $3 billion per year. We have spent around $160 billion on the ISS. It is going to be terribly difficult and expensive to build and maintain a lunar base. Why go? I don’t think that we would go for economic reasons.
President Kennedy said it best in 1962 at Rice University:
"We choose to go to the Moon. We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.”
He closed with these words:
“…space is there, and we're going to climb it, and the Moon and the planets are there, and new hopes for knowledge and peace are there. And, therefore, as we set sail we ask God's blessing on the most hazardous and dangerous and greatest adventure on which man has ever embarked.”
Every time I hear that speech, I get chills down my spine, the same chills I feel as I proudly listen to the National Anthem. Kennedy knew that the peaceful exploration of space could defuse international tensions if done correctly. “We come in peace for all mankind."
Q: Will travel to the moon one day be as common as going to Paris or London?
A: That one day will be a long time in the future. In the imaginable future, though, it will not be as common just because of the energetics. It takes a lot of energy to leave the grip of Earth’s gravity, and that energy is going to be expensive and polluting of the upper atmosphere.
Q: How long before we go to Mars or somewhere beyond the moon, and how difficult and challenging will that be?
A: Going to Mars is not the same as going to Mars and coming back safely with a reasonable chance of surviving. Everything out there in space wants to kill you – the vacuum of space, the cold, micrometeorites coming at you at a mile a second, solar flares that can dose you with enough radiation that you will die of cancer. Our bodies do not do well in zero gravity, as the recent ISS missions have shown.
One entrepreneur in the U.S. has the “bold plan,” as the news states, to get to Mars by 2024. This isn’t bold. It is stupid – unless you don’t expect the astronauts to return safely.
Q: Will space one day be a new battleground for countries on earth – whoever controls space controls the world? In other words, should we be worried about the military aspects of all this?
A: President Eisenhower knew firsthand the terror of war as Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces in World War II, and he was determined not to let the military lead the exploration of space. Can you imagine how controversial this was in the time of the Cold War? He changed the course of space exploration by creating a civilian agency, NASA, to take charge of our space missions. And the rest of the world followed his lead. Of course, space is heavily militarized with spy satellites, and probably tactical weapons. But because of the vision of Ike, we speak of space exploration as a civilian endeavor, a peaceful quest for knowledge, which gives me some hope that space will not become hopelessly militarized.
You must remember that low Earth orbit starts at about 90 miles above us, which is less than the distance to Houston from College Station, and about as far as the Soviet rockets in Cuba were from Florida. Yes, we must be apprehensive about what the enemies of the U.S. can do in space. For the present, I am more concerned about rogue nations attacking our satellites using copies of commercially available rockets, for instance, by launching millions of ball bearings into orbit to randomly destroy what we put up there. Image if all GPS satellites were taken down. You could not pump gasoline or get money from an ATM machine. It does not take a nuclear bomb to threaten the future of the U.S.
Q: What are your feelings about alien life out there -- do you think it is possible that we could be contacted in our lifetime?
A: Well, we know there is life elsewhere, and I am surprised that almost no one knows about it. We have brought back life from the surface of the Moon. But this is not a conspiracy of silence that the aliens walk amongst us. It is because we can’t wholly sterilize a satellite from bacteria hitch-hiking on board. Apollo 12 astronauts brought back a piece of the Surveyor 3 lander to Earth, and bacteria were found to be alive, although they apparently hibernated on the Moon. This is a controversial result, however, in that the return sample was not handled in a carefully sterilized environment. Perhaps the best samples to retrieve would be the bags of, well, poop, left on the Moon by the astronauts. I can imagine the chuckles in Congress if someone proposed this.
As for life elsewhere in the universe, the gut feeling of most astronomers, and I would say most people who have an interest in it, is that life must be common on planets around other stars. We know that life formed once on Earth; after all, we exist! I have to qualify that because life could have arisen on Venus or Mars early in the formation of the solar system and was brought to Earth by meteoritic impacts. If we can find just one place where life has formed independently in the Solar System, such as on Mars; or the possible watery subterranean seas on the moon of Saturn, Enceladus; or the moon of Jupiter, Europa; or in the upper atmosphere of Venus. If that were the case, then we would know that life must be common in the universe. But so long as we only have one place where we know life exists – here – well, we have statistics of one, as we say in astronomy, and there is not much you can do with that.
What is weirder is that we know there is a planet entirely populated by robots. We can easily see the evidence of this robot civilization using radio telescopes. Of course, that planet is Mars, and we put those robots there, but how cool is that? A robot planet.
As for intelligent life – in a way it is a stranger question. As the great physicist Enrico Fermi was claimed to have said, “Well, where are they?” That is, if there is intelligent life, why don’t we see it with our telescopes, or see evidence here on earth of visitations? Astronomers do look for life elsewhere in the universe. There are science projects run by serious astronomers, mostly funded by private individuals, searching for life using the radio spectrum. Recently astronomers have begun to look at their data to see if there is laser light, which can only be produced artificially. But one solid piece of evidence is all we have – it is silence out there in the stars. If we haven’t seen signs of intelligent life so far, to me that probably says there are few or no other civilizations, or for some unknown reason, they are silent.
Q: What’s the next big question you have about space travel that you would want answered above all others?
A: This is a negative answer, but what I want more than anything is to stop us from putting billboards into space. The technology is here, and companies are figuring out ways to do it. It is easy to imagine a swarm of thousands of small satellites that can be flown in formation the size of the full Moon, and can be programmed to, say, advertise Pabst Blue Ribbon beer. When I look up in the sky, I want to see the beauty of the stars and experience the immensity of the universe. I don’t want to see a damn beer ad.