Why are people L-CROSS?

While I wait for some code to run, I couldn't help notice the outcry on Twitter about the imminent impact of LCROSS with the Moon. People seem confused, angry and upset.

LCROSS is a relatively cheap mission that was launched along with LRO in June following design, development and construction over the previous few years. Today's impact with crater Cabeus, near the Moon's south pole, will give us definitive measurements of water within a permanently shadowed crater. There is great science to be done and we'll add to the recently announced results from India's Chandrayaan-1. So why are people upset?

A big reason people are upset seems to be a response to a particular choice of words being used on Twitter. LCROSS is being referred to as a "bomb" and NASA as "waging war on the Moon". It isn't a bomb as it isn't packed with explosives. Using the word "impactor" doesn't have the same emotional impact though. In reality, LCROSS and the Centaur rocket that took it to the Moon are not much different from the countless space rocks that have hit the Moon over the past 4 billion years creating the crater-pocked surface we see today. If anything, the Moon has been hit by many larger objects than LCROSS in the past and survived (update at 11:56 am: Chris North points out that impacts with the size and energy of LCROSS happen to the Moon about 4 times per month!). It takes a lot to have a large affect on something as big as the Moon and LCROSS is just too puny to do that. But the word "bomb" resonates with people and they rightly suggest that "waging war on the Moon" is a waste of money. That would be a waste of money and, thankfully, nobody is doing that.

With the perceived negative reason for the LCROSS impact, people have started to complain about the cost of the mission. This perceived "waste of money" in space is something I've written about before when pointing out that the money is actually spent down here on Earth. Spending money "on space" produces many things we rely on day-to-day and has some more suprising benefits too.

An interesting thing about the complaints is the comparisons people generally make. My experience in the past and today, is that people compare the cost of these missions to things such as starving children and finding cures for cancer. These are incredibly worthwhile causes and, in a strange way, show how far up people have to set the bar to give an example of a better use of our collective money. I'm not sure the last time I heard the excessive wages of a Premiership footballer held up against starving children or people demanding that the money spent on Hollywood action movies be diverted into cancer research.

Although the worthy comparisons are reassuring, this shouldn't make people who do astronomy or space science feel complacent. We should be justifying why we do this sort of research, and why it is important, to everyone. That includes the scared and confused people on Twitter as well as the people who already know why.

Europe isn't best placed to see the impact as the Moon is either set or too low. However, you can watch the impact on NASA TV.

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Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Friday 09th Oct 2009 (11:53 CEDT) | Permalink
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