Fellow SETI enthusiasts: We are missing the boat on President Bush's new "Moon, Mars and Beyond" program! This editorial is nothing less than a call to arms, metaphorically speaking.
Instead of using the Moon as just a "stepping stone to Mars", as the US President's proposal has outlined, a lunar farside SETI facility (radio astronomy dishes linked like the Allen-array network, and an optical cluster there as well for the Laser SETI Searchers) offers as its reward the possible detection of a Galactic Internet, not merely the frozen/fossilized microbes likely to be found on Mars.
Even if those microbes exist, they are, from Earth, one hundred times the travel time and a thousand times the distance of the Moon. Real-time telerobotic operations, and a near-constant -50F temperature at the lunar South Pole (rather like Earth's Antarctic Stations) are additional advantages Moon missions have over Mars. Solar panels work better on the Moon than they do here on Earth, (no atmosphere to blunt the rays), but Mars, at twice Earth's distance from the Sun, get it's solar energy much less efficiently.
I don't know what percentage of Earth's general population consists of microbiologists, but it must be rather small. I suspect that few people really care all that much about microbes, yet many people would be fascinated by First (and subsequent?) Contact with an alien civilization, as evidenced by that theme's popularity in all human cultures.
How have the Microbe Searchers managed to get so much attention from the White House, and so much of the funding at NASA? Where are the Moon Advocates? It's time for us to speak up.
I wish we could have helped convince someone (Commission members, the White House Science Advisor, whoever can make a difference) about the advantages of lunar SETI research. I feel responsible, and maybe you should too, for allowing NASA's limited funding to be spent primarily on microbe-hunting mania, at the expense of developing a lunar farside SETI base. The irony is that sustainability of funding has continually been cited by the President's own Commission as the Moon, Mars, etc. plan's greatest threat. That concern is the very reason a lunar SETI base is a better idea. If a series of robotically placed radio dishes could be positioned to form an ever-widening spiral on the lunar farside, it could continue to grow until such time as (inevitably) funding was curtailed at some point. Whatever facility was in place at that point would continue to operate on that powerful and abundant solar energy.
I hope I won't lose credibility here by acknowledging that some of the blame for our current fascination with Mars must surely go to Orson Welles! His "War of the Worlds" radio scare in 1938 solidified a curiosity about Mars that I too shared, until the Viking mission brought two GCMS (Gas Chromatograph Mass Spectrometers) labs to the Martian surface, and that pretty much answered for me all of the mystery about life on Mars.
Now that a new space initiative presents us with the opportunity for a return to the Moon, we must do whatever we can to maximize the Moon part of Moon, Mars and Beyond. Our deepest understanding of the cosmos will come from telescopes, not microscopes. Though the Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity have done so much in their semi-autonomous manner, the real-time telerobotic operations between Earth and the Moon would make their meanderings childlike by comparison.
For these, and other reasons, I say now: Moon yes, Mars no!
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this page last updated 5 June 2004
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