Paul Thornton's Op-Ed, "Space Program Lunacy," recently caught my eye. Although Mr. Thornton's emphasis was on the need to replace a certain weather satellite rather than "waste billions" on human spaceflight, I instantly felt the need to come to the defense of NASA's plan to return to the moon. Actually, it isn't NASA's plan. It's our plan. The president proposed it, Congress approved it, and our NASA is currently running like Seabiscuit to make it happen. That's a very good thing, and I'm going to tell you why.
First, let me confess a little bias. When I was a West Virginia lad of 17, I met a Massachusetts lad of 42 by the name of John F. Kennedy. At the time, I was in a bright orange suit that I had just purchased to wear to the 1960 National Science Fair, where I hoped my home-built rockets would win a medal. Kennedy was in West Virginia trying to win the state's presidential primary. We met just as he finished a speech designed to convince a crowd of less-than-enthusiastic coal miners to give him their vote. When he asked for questions, I raised my hand and, for some reason, he noticed me right off. Because I was a rocket boy, I asked him what he thought we should do in space. He turned it around and asked me what I thought we should do, and I said we should go to the moon. When he asked me why, I looked around at all those coal miners and said, well, we ought to go up there and just mine the blamed thing! The miners all laughed, and so did Kennedy, and when he agreed with me, he secured all their votes that day. For the longest time, I took credit for the Apollo moon program and, though I'd been shipped off to Vietnam when we got there, I followed the moon flights with a certain personal pride.
So here we are, working to go again, and folks like Mr. Thornton feel obligated to come out and say it's a big waste of tax money. Don't get me started on how most of the federal budget is spent (i.e., tossed down a rat hole), but NASA's little 0.5% of it, and the even smaller percentage for our new moon program, is at least going toward something that might actually allow our country to have a future. That's right. I'm talking national survival, folks, because to get by, we might need to go to the moon and just mine the blamed thing!
I don't have enough words allotted to tell you how good it is that our engineers are building new machines to go into space (productive work!), or how the moon is part of the Earth (calved off about three billion years ago!) and is, like Antarctica, a place that will pay unexpected scientific dividends (global warming!). So I'll just tell you the top two reasons we should go back to the moon: Energy and energy.
Tired of burning fossil fuel and polluting the planet? The moon is covered with helium 3, an isotope from the sun that is the perfect fuel for clean fusion reactors. OK, we don't have any fusion reactors right now, but some day we will, and we'll need fuel for them, and the moon's got plenty. The moon's also a great place to beam solar energy back to Earth by the mega-gigawatt.
But to get all that energy is going to require human beings to walk around on the moon (like somebody once did in Saudi Arabia) and scratch their heads and figure out how to do it. To get them there, I suspect our new moon program will, like Apollo, also invigorate our economy, invent a bunch of new stuff we can all make money on and maybe, just maybe, provide us with one other dividend, a win in our war against terror.
How's that? Well, it's my belief that the kids whose parents are religious fanatics will look up at the moon, think to themselves how cool it is that people are there and wish they were there too. The next thing you know, they'll be taking an interest in science and engineering and thinking rationally. Rational thought will always trump medieval dogma. So, for energy's sake and our planet's soul, let's happily go back to the moon and, this time, stay a while and mine the blamed thing!
Homer Hickam is the author of "Rocket Boys," on which the movie "October Sky" was based. Click here to read more about The Times' Blowback feature.