TAEM- With China now looking to place its astronauts on the surface of the Moon there seems to be another ‘Space Race’ in the making. Our newly elected President, Donald J. Trump, has also expressed his deep interest in the cosmos. This combination may trigger America’s deep commitment in manned exploration to placing humans on the Moon and Mars again!
We’ve decided to ask Dr. Harold A. Geller of George Mason University in Virginia, after his previous interview in our July 2014 (click on to see) issue, to elaborate on this theme.
Dr. Geller, as America had stepped on the surface of the Moon first, and as the only nation to do so, what are your feelings on this matter?
HG- I first want to thank you for allowing me to address these issues with you. I also should say that what I say are my own opinions and do not represent the views of anyone else at either George Mason University or NASA/JPL. Now to the questions you pose. As old as I am, I remember much of the space program, and what led to the first steps, by Neil Armstrong, on the surface of the Moon. I remember President Kennedy challenging the USA to reach for the Moon. I remember the Mercury manned missions and the Gemini missions. I followed them closely. I remember the Apollo 1 disaster (I wrote a school report about that incident). I still recall clearly watching the landing on the Moon in 1969, at my cousin’s house in Ventnor City, New Jersey. To me it is sad that it was over 47 years ago that the USA first stepped foot on the Moon; and, today we don’t even have the capacity to do so now. After another 5 men, and it was only men, followed Neil Armstrong in creating footsteps in the regolith strewn surface, we have done little with the Moon since that time in terms of people, but not in terms of science. President Trump has not, as yet, chosen anyone to head NASA. He has said a number of things during the campaign about NASA and space exploration, but what will be the direction of NASA is still left for speculation. While other countries, like China, have talked about their plans for the future, we have not seen the evidence of follow through for such efforts. I can remember when there were plans at NASA to reach Mars in 1997. That didn’t pan out, did it? I also recall working on a joint proposal of George Mason University and the University of Maryland for a NASA Mars rover sample return mission. That was back in 1985, and although our proposal didn’t get funded for the next phase, the Mars sample return mission itself was scrapped. Even now, the next rover mission to Mars, proposed for 2020, will be a rover very similar to the Curiosity rover. There is no mission on the books for a return voyage, with samples from the surface of Mars. Most recently, Forbes magazine did a piece on the future of NASA under the Trump administration. The article gave four reasons why the Trump administration might decide to send astronauts to Mars. Only time will tell what the future may be, but as I grow older, I have less hope that I will live long enough to see any of these plans come to fruition. Nonetheless, I recall Carl Sagan’s statement from his original “Cosmos” series, and the associated book with the same title.
“The surface of the Earth is the shore of the cosmic ocean. From it we have learned most of what we know. Recently, we have waded a little out to sea, enough to dampen our toes or, at most, wet our ankles. The water seems inviting. The ocean calls. Some part of our being knows this is from where we came. We long to return.”
TAEM- Was after achieving President Kennedy’s goal the only reason America stopped pursuing further colonization of the Moon, and if not what other reasons constituted this curtailment ?
HG- As I said just before, in responding to your first question, NASA and the rest of the country had looked beyond the lunar landings. NASA had bold plans to reach out beyond the Moon, and consider sending people to Mars, even back during the Apollo mission days. Its plans were never funded. I think there were many reasons. One of the main reasons was money. Another was a loss of drive. We can’t forget that the last man to step on the Moon, Gene Cernan, who died recently, did so in 1972. Shortly afterwards, the nation was caught up in the Watergate scandal and the resignation of a president. The rebuilding of the space program was just never a priority. At that time, the plans for the Space Shuttle, were well on their way, and the focus of NASA was the building of the Space Shuttle. I recall that it was to be akin to a freight train to low Earth orbit. Unfortunately, it too, never panned out the way it was planned. Part of that were the Space Shuttle disasters. I don’t think the Space Shuttle ever really recovered fully from the Challenger disaster.
TAEM- As a matter of national pride and, the advancement of space exploration, do you support the belief that America should regain the foothold of manned lunar exploration again ?
HG- I personally believe that it would be beneficial for the USA to return to the Moon, and consider long term plans to reach Mars. However, while such an expensive effort is good for the nation in terms of national pride and human space exploration, I have to agree with my scientist colleagues that we can do a lot of space exploration with unmanned spacecraft. Look at the enormous strides made with the New Horizons mission to Pluto. Even though still officially a dwarf planet, New Horizons has revealed Pluto to be an enormous planetary laboratory with wonders and mysteries approaching any of the major planets. I believe it is quite possible to do a lot of science on the Moon, without even having people take any risks to get there themselves.
TAEM- What reasons would you offer our new President to push NASA ahead and possibly establish colonies on the Moon?
HG- Our president’s campaign slogan was “make America great again.” I can’t think of anything in the technology arena that would make America great again as much as the human space exploration endeavor. It would also be a great unifier, unifying the country with a common goal as the original ‘space race’ had done. It would be a boom to the technology industry and spur a revival of the aerospace industry, and that means a lot of jobs. The Moon could be a showcase of American ingenuity, and frankly, might be considered a powerful deterrent to those countries thinking they can destroy our culture. I am not aware of any terrorists on the Moon, are you? The Moon could also be an incubator of industry that you could not find anywhere on Earth. If you could convince the president that a lunar base would be good for industry, I think it might open his mind to the possibilities.
TAEM- Do you think that he should strive to organize private enterprises to assist NASA with this goal, and what could they possibly achieve for commercial purposes?
HG- I recall so many years ago, over a quarter century, when I did some work as a contractor for the NASA Office of Commercial Programs. The biggest hurdle for NASA in convincing businesses to look at commercial space ventures was the time needed to get a return on investments (ROI). American firms simply would not look at such long ROI times. I recall that there were some Japanese firms that were willing to look at longer ROI times, but that’s another story. NASA really has always relied on commercial firms for so much of its work. For a time, I myself was working for the Grumman Aerospace Corporation. That was when President Reagan was pushing NASA to build a much larger space station. I recall it was to be named Space Station Freedom. Anyway, there is no doubt that future developments in space exploration or colonization would be a public-private endeavor. I just don’t see it proceeding any other way, these days. As such, NASA might want to consider not only science laboratories on the surface of the Moon, but also industrial laboratories on the surface of the Moon. A former colleague of mine now works with a group (see http://www.magneticglide.com ) that argues for the extensive use of magnetic levitation in transportation and energy industries. A maglev launcher on the Moon could propel raw materials, and the like, into space and back to Earth, with much greater ease than could ever be done on Earth. Technology such as a maglev space launcher is already well understood.
In what is called the StarTram system, spacecraft are magnetically levitated and accelerated to orbital speed, in a long-evacuated tube. The spacecraft is equipped with superconducting magnets that interact with the passive aluminum or copper loops imbedded in the wall of the evacuated tube, levitating and stabilizing it as it travels along the launch tube. When the StarTram spacecraft reaches its final launch velocity at the end of the launch tube, it exits into the atmosphere through a Magneto Hydro Dynamic (MHD) window that acts just like a door and prevents anything from entering the evacuated launch tube. The operation of the
MHD evacuated launch tube would be even more practical on the surface of the Moon than on Earth, recalling the lower lunar escape velocity. The StarTram system itself is also proposed for Earth to orbital launch, and is said to be able to accelerate the realization of a lunar base and reduce the cost of its construction. That is, such a maglev launch capability would be much cheaper per ton of payload placed on orbit, has a rapid recycle time for a much higher frequency of launch events, and avoids the inherent hazards of chemical propellant systems. Such a system could complement manned launches on conventional rockets to more cost effectively place lunar base construction materials, much of which will be robotically assembled, on orbit for final applications. Superconducting magnetic levitation is one technology that was invented and developed in the USA; unfortunately, you only find it implemented in Japan.
TAEM- What scientific purposes can be achieved with lunar colonies in further space exploration and how rapidly can mankind advance because of them?
HG- Really, you are asking me what science can be achieved on the Moon. Well, as I recall, in 2007 NASA released a list of some 181 different science objectives that could be carried out on and beneath the surface of the Moon. Today the readers can examine this list online at https://science.nasa.gov/science-news/science-at-nasa/2007/02feb_181 . You also ask how rapidly we might incorporate advances made on the Moon. That’s a lot tougher question. In some cases I think we can benefit quite quickly, within a year, once the necessary experiments were assembled on or within the Moon. I’m not an economist able to tell you how quickly any companies might see a return on investment, but again you asked about how rapidly we might incorporate advances made on the Moon, and obviously it is rather a quick turnaround.
TAEM- Because of the lack of an atmosphere on the Moon, many scientists believe that this quality would be an excellent choice for establishing radio and optical telescopes for a more in-depth study of the universe. Please elaborate on this statement.
HG- Just last week I was discussing with my class the concept of angular resolution of telescopes. And this applies to all wavelengths of the electromagnetic spectrum, from radio waves to gamma rays, including the optical wavelengths. Basically, angular resolution deals with the ability to separate two sources of radiation. In the optical, of course, we are talking about visible light. An angular resolution of 1 arc second means that the telescope can separate two light sources, as individual light sources, even if they are as close together as 1 arc second, and that’s 1/3600 of a degree. Simply put, the larger the diameter of the telescope’s objective lens or mirror, the greater the angular resolution of the telescope. However, many of our ground based telescopes already have angular resolution that is greater than the angular resolution caused by the atmosphere of the Earth. It’s like adding an amount of jitter, or movement of the scope. So, yes, it
would be ideal for all telescopes if we could do away with the atmospheric blurring effect, and that is, make the observatory in an airless environment, like the Moon.
TAEM- Scientists also believe that planetary and deep space vehicles could be more effectively be launched from the lunar surface at a lower cost. What is your opinion with their reasoning?
HG- Of course, it is really very basic, all related to energy. The escape velocity for the Earth is 11.2 kilometers per second. That is, if you have a velocity of 11.2 km/s and direct yourself perpendicular to the surface of the Earth, you will escape from the Earth’s gravitational well. On the Moon, the escape velocity is merely 2.4 kilometers per second. Furthermore, the energy needed to be expended to achieve a given velocity is proportional to the mass of the object and the square of the velocity. So, such a difference in velocity yields an even greater difference in the energy needed to achieve such a velocity. It’s just basic physics.
TAEM- Private commercial space development companies, such as Bigelow and SpaceX, Have designed space stations for future use. In your opinion how can this aid our astronauts as emergency uses if they were placed in orbit around the Moon and Mars in the near future?
HG- Certainly, if others had vehicles in lunar orbit, they all could assist better in an emergency. You know, many people forget that NASA itself used to always provide for more than one spacecraft going to some destination. Remember Pioneer 10 and 11; Voyager 1 and 2; and, Viking Lander 1 and 2? NASA was always trying to increase the likelihood of a successful mission, and having more than one spacecraft, or venue, does the same. You always increase the likelihood of a successful mission if you have more than one avenue of approach. This would also be true for the lunar astronauts. If there are other avenues of escape for the astronauts, there is a much higher probability of success for their escape or exit from the lunar arena.
TAEM- What other uses can these orbiting stations serve?
HG- As the saying goes, two heads are better than one. In this case, as in the case of the solar observatories known as STEREO, if you have two observing stations simultaneously giving you a view of some object under study, whether Sun, Moon or Earth, you will get more than double your observations. Just think if the NFL only one had one camera watching the players. You would not be able to determine if that football really crossed the plane of the goal line. Different perspectives on the object under study are always openings for better understanding and reaching a valid conclusion.
TAEM- As colonizing Mars would be the obvious next step, what encouragement can you offer the New Administration in making this our National Goal ?
HG- As I stated earlier, President Trump’s campaign slogan was make America great again. Think back to the days of the so-called race to the Moon. The nation was unified in its goal to reach the Moon. The USA was number one in space back then, and pushing such an agenda may make the USA #1 again.
TAEM- Dr. Geller, we want to thank you for your continued interest in our magazine. We were established to assist students by presenting information towards their goals and careers, and to help them avoid the pitfalls that lay before them. We are very proud to have you, and George Mason University, provide us with your expert and profound knowledge achieve our mission statement.