The Twelve

Neil Armstrong, first moon walker, died yesterday.

In total, there have been twelve. Armstrong who was first, Peter Conrad who was 3rd, Alan Shepard who was 5th and James Irwin who was 8th, are gone, leaving just eight. Just eight of 7 billion. Alan Shepard was the oldest, he was born in 1923, the others were all born in the 1930s at a time when Orville Wright still lived. The youngest, Charles Duke, will be 77 this year.

Could we soon have an age where all the moon walkers are gone? Will children then wonder whether it happened at all?


Don't forget Michael Jackson.


the salient XKCD comic:

> Could we soon have an age where all the moon walkers are gone?

It's almost certain, isn't it?

If the youngest is 77 right now, then in 13 years we'd be quite surprised to have any left.

Even in an age of CAD, CAM, CNC, carbon fiber composites, etc., a moon program would likely take 10 years from announcement to landing.

I don't see any nation state making a serious announcement of a moon program in the next few years, as this depression drags on.

Surprised, really? Thinking about the odds, they're all white (good), male (bad) and at least 77 (bad, but compared to life expectancy from zero, ok). Once the odds of survival for 13 years exceed 8.3%, we should not be so surprised.

Buzz Aldrin is alive and kicking. Or punching, as the case may be.

Did we have an age where all the Waterloo soldiers were dead? Did children then wonder if the battle had been fought at all?

if trying to make a case for renewing manned lunar missions, refreshing collective memory is a weak argument.

Besides, grown men were doubting that it ever happened immediately after it happened.

More like grown idiots...

But it's not an argument for renewed landings per se, it's another data point in the Great Stagnation.

That is like saying that the absence of nuclear warfare since the 1940s is a data point in the Great Stagnation. We don't do something any more, yes it's more expensive, but it was wasteful and didn't benefit the world a great deal.

Full out nuclear war would've been the ultimate in Keynesian stimulus. What a missed opportunity!

If the manned space flight proves to be a dead end, Armstrong (and Gagarin) may be as much forgotten as the men who looked for a Northwest passage.

Well, they haven't gone back, so maybe it's just some place to say you've been.

Except that the Northwest Passage will soon be a viable and popular shipping route.

Maybe the Moon will one day be a popular shipping route.

Perhaps like the northwest passage it's just a matter of time before manned space flight goes from government-sponsored exploration to commercially desirable and privately-lead.

This is about price.

To send payload for less is achievable ( the most straightforward is to build very high tower (~ 30 km ) ) but would require substantial expenses to build

so to fly to moon costs the same as in 60s, but a return ( to repeat a something from 60s ) is quite low.
to advance there is a need to something with higher return, see wikipedia for one idea.

and it is about intelligent economists to push such ideas ;)

The last sentence is almost surely going to be true at some point absent one of the moonwalkers becoming a centenarian.

One fringe science/SF rationale for a thriving lunar colony, of course, would be the prospect for our species’ (and a relative handful of others) evolutionary continuity should a considerable asteroid soon strike Earth. Granted, evolutionary continuity is not readily priced.

I'm skeptical that a lunar colony could survive if an astroid hit Earth.

Same. In fact unless the asteroid strike was so powerful as to incinerate every thing I would still bet on the people left on the Earth vs. a moon colony.

Even if you had a strike the size of the asteroid that took care of the dinosaurs you would still have more resources available to survive on Earth than you would on the moon. The presence of a breathable atmosphere that you don't need to manufacture would alone give them a major advantage.

The Loonies can come back down and recolonize. Heck of an expensive way to ensure species continuity (LEO would work just as well) but it would be useful.

1/6 gravity for a few decades might not allow someone to come back to Earth gravity. Or it might; we don't know and the lack of research on that is incredibly frustrating.

LEO could have more gravity, but making LEO self-sustaining is really hard.

Mars would be a better place to try to make the "backup."

+1 for Mars being a much better idea.

But there's no particular reason why artificial gravity techniques that work in space couldn't work on the Moon or any other surface with local g<1. Just make your habitat big and spin it up, with your floors a little canted to allow the local gravity plus centripetal acceleration to vector sum to "down."

Wouldn't you need hundreds or thousands of people to avoid a killing genetic bottleneck? If you have that many, it might as well be self-sustaining, and if you're counting on people below surviving to be part of the founder population, you might as well just spruce up some old bomb shelters or underground nuclear complexes for vastly less money.

> Wouldn't you need hundreds or thousands of people to avoid a killing genetic bottleneck?

A society that could support a significant Mars colony could deal with such issues through genetic engineering, rather than brute force population count. We're talking at least twenty years in the future here, and probably more like a hundred.

But yes, presumably even an autarkic colony would want a large number of people, for labor specialization if nothing else. I don't think we could realistically set up a (meaningful) backup population on Mars by 2020. But by 2100, it will probably seem a crazy risk not to have already done so.

Agreed. For it to survive a complete collapse of the biosphere on Earth, it would have to be capable of being entirely self-sufficient on the Moon. I'm skeptical as to whether or not that's possible, even with ice at the Moon's south pole.

With the economic mess the world is in, it would be inane to send people to land on the moon or Mars so that they can talk about small or giant steps.

Doubtless the kind of thought mutatis mutandis that restrained Spanish, Portuguese, French, English, Dutch ambitions in the 15th and 16th centuries CE. The inability to predict resulting economic outcomes is not necessarily a reliable predictor of resulting economic outcomes.

Many of the Europeans greatly overestimated the wealth (i.e. gold) that they could acquire from colonizing the Americas. But they had a pretty clear idea of the value of land.

Keep in mind that the costs of many of these colonial conquests were low, especially from the point of view of the governments involved. For instance, Cortez's entire invasion force included 11 ships and about 500 soldiers. Pizarro conquered the entire Inca Empire with 169 men. Almost all of the significant English colonies in America were financed either by joint stock companies (Massachusetts Bay Colony, Virginia Colony) or noblemen (Maryland, Carolina). Much of the 15th and 16th century colonization you're talking about essentially involved loading a couple of ships up with food, building materials, and a few hundred people, and shipping them to the Americas; this isn't exactly the same sort of outlay as landing on the moon.

That's true, but it's worth pointing out that the Europeans found very valuable "products" almost immediately, such as slaves, gold, silver, and eventually cash crops like cane sugar and tobacco. Those products were so incredibly valuable that they justified the expeditions and colonial expenses even considering the enormous death rate for new colonists (Particularly in the Virginia Colony). There's a reason that the Spanish Crown quickly sent him out again with a much larger expedition, only six months after he returned from the first one.

The equivalent for space would have to be someone discovering a very high-temperature superconductor on the Moon's surface, or a giant deposit of easily accessible Rare Earth Metals.

Let's say there was to be had a very large concentrated supply of Neodymium or Iridium on the lunar surface. Would that still make it economical to fly there and back with a few hundred kilos? Neodymium Oxide sells for ~ $200 / kg. What's the per kg lunar payload transport cost?

The most exotic I could find was Europium Oxide but that's still "only" $4000 /kg.

The cost for a returned kilogram would be _way_ higher than that. It's conceivable you could get something like that to work with Mars where there's ample useful resources around for making rocket fuel and other things, given a hundred years' progress in spacecraft. But it's still not something I'd bet on. I could imagine mining Helium-3 from gas giants economically, but that's way off.

If there are ever extraterrestrial colonies, and I think sooner or later there will be, their exports will likely be some form of IP. Something that can be exported with a radio.

Something that can be exported with a radio.

Thus the industries that we actually and already do have in space.

This depends on what you think is the nature of our economic mess. Is it resource scarcity, or simply poor organization. If it is the former (which I think is a substantial part of it), then yeah, we don't want to waste resources.

If it is a matter of organization, then the question is whether a space mission could help us to organize more efficiently. A big space mission would stimulate demand (presumably) and perhaps reignite optimism.

Based on Sergey Kurdakov's post above maybe "wasting" some resource will potentially get us payback of a lot more resource?

'Will children then wonder whether it happened at all?"

Similarly to you, I think this may be partly a political issue.

Don't some already question whether we landed on the moon? "Moon denialists" are certainly a fringe group, but my (limited) understanding is that they also tend to be distrustful of government. Public trust in the government is currently not high in the broad public, even if the broad public does believe that we landed on the moon. Thus, public desire to pay for returns to the moon might be low due to mood affiliation.

Some above seem to be arguing our non-return to the moon is a more technology driven phenomenon related to stagnation, it could also be a symptom of political dysfunction.

I was surprised to read in the NYT obituary and the Business Week obituary wherein they mentioned about the landing on the moon before the decade is over (the challenging goal that JFK set) being achieved with 5 months to spare.
I would have thought that 1970 was the end of the decade ( the first decade presumably having started in the year 1 ) and so it was achieved with 17 months to spare.
The same logic that led to the celebration of New year 2000 instead of 2001 as the new millennium.

The anno domini system of counting years did not start in the year 1.
It started in the year 525 and was backdated to negative 4.
So you can celebrate decades and centuries ending whenever you like.

It's actually pretty impressive that 75% of a group of men born at least 77 years ago are still around today. Though perhaps not surprising, as they obviously had to have been in excellent health to have been selected. Also note that only three of the four deaths were due to disease, Conrad was in a motorcycle crash.

Another interesting last-survivor story: 95-year-old Rochus Misch of Berlin is, as best can be determined, the last living person who personally knew Adolf Hitler. He was an SS officer who served as one of Hitler's bodyguards.

Let us also not forget the 13th ( and 14th and 15th) of Apollo13 - their small steps back on the earth were as great an achievement as those of the Moonwalkers.

Here on Earth, automation is generally considered a sign of progress: we develop technology to do tasks more cheaply and efficiently than humans and, in many cases, to do tasks that humans can't do. When it comes to space exploration, however, we seem to take the opposite view. Unmanned space probes and robots are able to go far beyond where we can go with manned spacecraft, more cheaply, and with obviously less risk to human lives. Yet, somehow, there remains this fascination with accomplishing with man what we have already done or could easily do with machines --- to go where our machines have already gone before.

I don't think it even needs to be an "either or" thing with robots. They're experimenting with space robots that can do repairs right now, and I wouldn't be surprised if they used future, better versions of those robots to assemble stuff in space. You could even use them to assemble spaceships and space stations for manned use, all while being remotely controlled from the ground.

It doesn't need to be an either/or thing but the economics of space travel strongly favor robots over humans.

Consider the now-common wisdom that it wouldn't be that expensive to send humans to Mars -- what would be expensive is to get them back to Earth. The same applies to space travel in general. Humans need food, water and breathable air to survive. Workable toilets are considered a nice touch. For really long missions, you would probably want a doctor on board and you would certainly need exercise equipment to prevent the crew's muscles and bones from degenerating in micro-gravity. Radiation shielding is probably also necessary for long missions -- we don't know much about the long-term effects of exposure to solar and cosmic radiation but it can't be good. And, finally, you need to carry a return craft complete with a heat shield and enough propellant to return safely to earth.

If you are sending a robot, you don't need to worry about any of these things and the cost is just a fraction. For instance, the Mars Rover missions is priced at between $5 and $10 billion. The most conservative optimistic estimate I have seen of a manned mission to Mars is $50 billion but with over $100 billion being a distinct possibility.

There is no need for humans to walk the moon at this point, sorry. And it is ridiculous to suggest that people will doubt whether man walked on the moon at all. There will always be a handful of cranks and conspiracy theorists, but come on...

We are nearing the long trough in a decades long slide from peak moonwalkers/humans.

Humans were inspired by their fellows in space, but that only demonstrates that humans are inspired by totems. I find this a distressing quality of humans.

A good thing then that humans are so infrequently inspired, and focus the vast amount of their time on the mundane.

Is there anything stopping a "John Galt" investing money to start their own private space program?

It's mostly because there are very few rich people (or rich private organizations) with the personal wealth to do a Moon or Mars mission on their own. The way income inequality and growth in the Developing World are going, though, it's quite possible that you might be able to find a group of multi-millionaires and -billionaires who would want to finance such a mission.

I think that would be a waste, though. I'd much rather have them pay for some excellent robotic missions and space telescopes than for a super-expensive one-off manned mission.

Yes and no. There are some regulatory and legal hurdles, but the Obama administration has actually been relatively helpful in that regard. The problem is that right now, private money hasn't yet developed a private capacity to launch people to LEO, so a moon shot is still a way off.

However, I'd be willing to bet that if another man walks on the moon before the last of the twelve die, the trip will be privately funded.

Not a betting man at all but were I, I'd be tempted to take you on: barring terrestrial calamity, the next man to walk on the moon may well be Chinese, though perhaps even then not until after our last Apollo veterans return to dust.

Before T-0: America refuses to use Nuclear Thermal Rockets.

T-0: China launches a Nuclear Thermal Rocket and the world doesn't end.

After T-0: America says that NTRs are obvious and starts using them a lot.

I don't know that NTRs will be a solution, but they certainly illustrate the problem: even with contemporary composite materials, getting large masses into low-earth orbit with rockets fueled with chemicals safe enough to use remains an expensive balancing act. Solve the LEO problem and the rest follows; leave the LEO problem unsolved and space travel will never be routine.

See Musk, Elon.

He seems determined to spend his fortune on dying on Mars.

I can think of at least four private space companies that are run by software or internet entrepreneurs. It's an interesting phenomenon.

Consider Elon Musk (first PayPal, now SpaceX), Jeff Bezos ( and now Blue Origin), John Carmack (designer of the Doom computer game and now head of Armadillo Aerospace) and Paul Allen (first Microsoft, now Stratolaunch). True, you also have spin-offs of defense contractors and Richard Branson -- who at least has years of experience in the airline industry -- is also in the game with Virgin Galactic.

But it's important to note that none of these guys are John Galt. Most of them are busy trying to secure contracts from NASA and, without those contracts, they would burn through their capital pretty quickly with the exception of Branson who is pretty close to getting paying customers to shell out $200,000 in exchange for being blasted into sub-orbital flight.

All of the Apollo astronauts but Alan Sheppard were from the Silent Generation, which was so often overshadowed by the sheer demographic weight of the Baby Boomers. Just an observation.

It doesn't look good for lunar colonies. Moon dust is incredibly abrasive and as toxic as asbestos; there is no magnetic field or atmosphere to protect against intense solar flares (including one in August 1972, between Apollo 16 and 17, which would have killed any astronaut walking on the Moon or traveling there or back); long-term exposure to zero gravity is now known to cause all kinds of permanent medical harm, including bone loss and alteration of eyesight, which might perhaps also occur in low gravity.

The solar flares aren't such a big deal. You just have to build your moon base below the lunar soil, like a bunker. Once a flare happens, it takes some time for the high-energy particulate radiation to reach the earth-moon neighborhood, so you have advance warning to get under cover. As for moon dust, yeah, you don't want to breathe it, but when I was in the Lunabotics Mining Competition we worked with a similar substance (lunar regolith simulant) with nothing more than face masks and bunny suits. As long as you have some decent dust decontamination procedures in place when entering and exiting your moon base, I don't think the little bit that might slip by is anything to freak out about. Bone loss in low gravity is an issue if you ever want to make an abrupt return to high gravity; but if you plan to live out your days in the lunar colony, that loss of bone density is just your body getting rid of what it no longer needs.

what kind of soil would leave that kind of footprint? Is the footprint still there today?

There is extremely little activity on the moon, so there is a very high chance it will still be there in a thousand years.

Comments for this post are closed