We can send a man to the moon, but…

News of the possible discovery of ice deposits on the moon this week flooded the astronomy community with enthusiastic discussion of the potential for lunar colonization. Early Thursday morning, the unmanned Mars Pathfinder spacecraft blasted off from Cape Kennedy on a mission to explore the Red Planet. Meanwhile, aboard the aging space shuttle Columbia, astronauts struggled in vain to open a stuck airlock door.
The contrast between recent awe-inspiring discoveries and the harsh reality of today’s space program illustrates the broadening gulf between what we know and what we can afford to do. While high-power telescopes and unmanned probes continually feed our intellect and imagination, the notions of a lunar colony or a manned mission to Mars remain as remote as the stars.
In the first decades of the space age, the Cold War fueled a race for control of the heavens. The contest was dramatic, patriotic and costly, but its breakneck pace and fantastic achievements astounded even the most jaded observer. The era when test pilots crawled into tin cans atop silver sticks of dynamite was charged with fears that the Soviets could, at any moment, drop bombs from an orbiting Sputnik. All the world watched as Neil Armstrong took the first step on the moon. In that moment of wonder, that pinnacle of ambition, anything seemed possible.Twenty-five years later we haven’t been back to the moon, much less beyond. The space race ended in a stalemate with twin ballistic nuclear arsenals pointed at each other. That draw turned to forfeit with the collapse of the Soviet Union. The skeleton of Russia’s once-proud space program now strands cosmonauts on its Mir space station while Moscow struggles to fund launches. NASA’s space shuttle technology is nearly two decades old. Plans for a space station are routinely scaled back and a new space-plane is still on the far horizon.
Although the heady days of the Mercury astronauts are but a fading memory, the pace of discovery has only accelerated. Space, once the domain of fighter jocks, is now the realm of the scientist. Voyager and Galileo probes have charted the outer planets of our solar system. The Hubble telescope peers into the darkness, providing volumes of data on distant stars and galaxies. The “Mars rock” found recently in Antarctica provides the first evidence of extraterrestrial life, albeit of the monocellular variety. And perhaps most inspiring, this week’s talk of water on the moon makes the prospect of a lunar base logistically feasible. At eight pounds per gallon, transporting water to space is extremely expensive. Lunar water could be used not only for human consumption and oxygen production, but even as a component of rocket fuel. But don’t bet on a moon base anytime soon.
Ad astra per aspera, as the Latin phrase goes — to the stars through adversity. We have overcome much in our quest for space, but we know too that it takes more than simple determination. Perhaps ad astra per lucre is a more fitting aphorism. Money, not technical ability, is what keeps us earthbound. Still, Columbia the exception, the door to space is open as never before. It may be decades more before we return to the moon or set foot on Mars, but through unmanned exploration we are on the brink of a new, cost-effective age of discovery.