Archive for the ‘Harrison Schmitt’ Category

Return to the Moon, Harrison H Schmitt

May 30, 2008

As the only scientist to walk on the Moon, it probably comes as no surprise to discover that Apollo 17 astronaut Harrison Schmitt‘s contribution to books about manned space exploration is a somewhat dry text-book setting forth an argument for returning to the Moon.

Schmitt’s proposal in Return to the Moon is based entirely on Helium-3 mining, a substance found in relative abundance on the Moon but extremely rare on Earth. This would be used in fusion reactors, and is a cleaner and more efficient method of power generation than nuclear, coal, gas or oil. The small amounts needed to generate sufficient power for a small city for a year make Helium-3 extremely valuable – so much so that 2500 tonnes would give the energy equivalent of some $1.75 trillion of coal (at 2003 prices)!

The chapter headings of Return to the Moon show how Schmitt argues his case – ‘Apollo: the Legacy’, ‘Energy: the Global Future’, ‘Moon Rocket Economics’, ‘Helium-3 Power Economics’, ‘Lunar Helium-3 Economics’, ‘Helium-3 Production Economics’, ‘Organizational Options for a Return, ‘Management: Lessons from Apollo’, ‘NASA: Restructuring for Deep Space’, ‘Investors: the Best Approach’, ‘Law: Space Resources’ and ‘Humans: Roles in Space’. As can be seen, Schmitt presents a chiefly economic argument. This makes sense – a new industry on the Moon will involve vast start-up costs.

(By comparison, the Apollo programme cost $16 billion in 1969 dollars – around $112 billion at 2005 rates. In 1968 alone, the US spent $88 billion on the Vietnam War. And to date, the war in Iraq has cost the US some $540 billion.)

Schmitt’s argument is compelling – as a motive for returning to the Moon, Helium-3 fits the bill nicely. He presents an excellent financial case, and provides a number of alternative methodologies and their associated costings. His prose is clear and concise and, while somewhat impersonal overall, where appropriate his opinions are plainly presented.

Where Schmitt’s argument begins to stumble for me is in the management models he proposes. In the chapter on ‘Organization Options for a Return’, he discusses a variety of approaches, from an all-government to an all-private initiative. He plumps squarely for all-private, but I feel he over-sells it. I suspect this is a US perspective – which doesn’t travel all that well across the Atlantic. To me, the profit motive, or even revenue maximisation, is a poor control mechanism for such socially, technologically and scientifically important projects. Schmitt gives as an example power generation, and suggests that privately-funded and -run fusion reactors would be put into operation faster, and run more efficiently, than public-run ones. But this argument ignores the fact that a utility such as electricity is a social need. If a privately-run reactor proves uneconomical, then it will be shut down… even if this leaves households without vital electricity. Some form of government control is necessary to ensure vital services are provided.

Schmitt also analyses the management systems in use during the Apollo programme. He is scathing about the bureaucracy which built up in NASA after Apollo. To me, US management techniques are often over-reliant on the concept of charismatic leadership. The manager is the one with the vision, and all others must “buy in”. If you have the wrong person in that role, your project is doomed. The fact that Apollo put in place management systems to reduce this risk doesn’t strike me as remarkable, merely sensible. And common practice in other parts of the world. Schmitt, however, not only gives historical examples of such systems, but is also quick to praise, or condemn, NASA’s upper management during Apollo, and both the Challenger and Columbia disasters. In other words, such systems are dependent on the quality of leadership, which strikes me as undermining his argument.

Another aspect of Apollo mentioned in the book is NASA’s subsequent graying of its workforce. Apollo was designed, built, operated and maintained by a young workforce. For ten years, they worked 16-hour days and 7-day weeks. They were motivated to do so by the importance of the Apollo programme, by the very nature of the project – to put a man on the Moon. The political backing Apollo received from various presidents and their Administrations only strengthened this. It’s true enough that such conditions no longer exist, either in US society or anywhere else in the world. And it’s equally true that they’re unlikely to occur again. It’s not simply the political will first presented by Kennedy, and then by his successors. But – and Schmitt makes no mention of this – those involved were mostly “baby boomers”, the first generation born after the war. World War II cast a deep shadow during that time. It no longer does – in fact, the nature of war, and society’s response to it, has changed drastically since then. I very much doubt the kind of sustained effort maintained by the Apollo engineers could be repeated, even by a workforce as young as that one was.

In essence, I agree with Schmitt’s proposal. We should go back to the Moon. And if it’s Helium-3 which draws us there, then so be it. Schmitt makes a strong economic argument, but I’m not so convinced on the management and operational approaches he suggests. (By contrast, his suggested reorganisation of NASA makes a great deal of sense.) Return to the Moon is an interesting and informative treatment of its subject, but I suspect its importance exists only in the minds of a small group of like-minded people. Which is a shame. Recommended, nonetheless.

Return to the Moon, Harrison H Schmitt (2006, Copernicus Books, ISBN 0-387-24285-6, 328pp)