September 17, 2002

IT'S NOT JUST DENNIS KUCINICH who's into space kookery. Check out this item from Democrats.Com on the private TransOrbital moon mission (no permalinks, you'll have to scroll):

Like all the other international laws, Bush is now ignoring those pertaining to space. As America is distracted by 9/11 remembrances and warnings of new threats, His Heinous has turned the moon over to a private, for-profit corporation called TransOrbital that has a far-reaching, frigthening agenda for the corporate domination of space. All TransOrbital had to do was promise not to contaminate and pollute the moon - yeah, right. That's what the oil companies say about ANWR. There was no Congressional vote - not even any consultation. Bush simply acted as if the moon were his to give away. The TransOrbital venture could be disastrous for the globe - no scientist today could predict yet how adding mass to the moon via human infrastructure or removing mass, via mining, will impact the delicate gravitational interplay between Earth and its only satellite. The moon belongs to all the people of the Earth - not to George. W. Bush or his friends at TransOrbital.

(Emphasis added). Actually, pretty much any scientist could tell you that nothing TransOrbital does could make the slightest difference in the "gravitational interplay" between the Earth and its "only satellite." (Er, only satellite except for this one, and this one).

The Moon's mass is .07 x 1024 kg. The Earth is approximately 81 times more massive. By contrast, TransOrbital is talking about payloads in the hundreds (102) of kilograms at most. Can these people do math? Do they have any idea what they're talking about?

Why am I wasting my time asking such obvious questions?

Democrats.Com is a parody site, right? Well, yes, whether intentionally or not.

And boy, it didn't take long for this prediction to come true, did it?

UPDATE: Faisal Jawdat emails that it's even worse than I make it out above:

If I recall correctly, the strongest gravitational influence on the moon is not the earth, it's the sun. The earth and the moon share more or less the same orbit around the sun, passing each other as they go.

Contrast to the moons of other planets in the solar system where the strongest gravitational influence is the local planet.

It's been a long time since I studied this stuff, but that sounds right. (And Faisal's a tech guy). Is there an astronomer in the house? Somebody page Jay Manifold!

ANOTHER UPDATE: Reader Mike Doffing points out:

The moon gets unpredicatable amounts of mass added to it all the time. (Hint: they're called craters.) Moreover, the influx rate does vary significantly (think meteor showers).

Then there's the earth, which, as you point out, is much larger and therefore attracts even more stuff. It is now known (only proven fairly rececntly) that all of our water comes from space -- the early earth was too hot to retain it. How much do the oceans weigh?

I don't know if they can do math. They certainly can't do astronomy.

I think the "no scientist can say what the long-term effects will be" is just a reflexive rhetorical trope now, and hence doesn't require asking any actual scientist anything, or even listening to what they say if you do. This really does read like a parody, but the site, alas, is serious. Well, as serious as it's capable of being, anyway. With some people the difference is pretty arbitrary.

ANOTHER UPDATE: Jay Manifold replies:

Truly bizarre. Strictly speaking, of course, the statement ("... no scientist today could predict ...") is literally correct, but only because any effect would be so small. Some carriers of anti-commercial memes will stop at nothing, and of course the math involved (see link) is way over the heads of a goodly portion of the electorate.

Faisal Jawdat is correct. Applying F ~ mM/r^2, and setting the Moon's pull on Earth at 1, the Sun's pull on Earth works out to about 174. By contrast, Jupiter's pull on Earth is (on average) 0.006. I could do the rest of the Solar System, but it's late.

Mike Doffing is also correct: "More than 100 tonnes of inter-planetary dust enters the earth's atmosphere each day." (link)

Democrats.Com: Your #1 source for bizarre misinformation! Well, one of them, anyway. There are so many . . . .

LAST UPDATE: Jim Bennett emails these comments:

But of course Congress did vote on it, in 1984, when they (including the Democrat-controled House, which originated the bill) passed the Commercial Space Launch Act. I recall the extensive discussions with the staff of the bill's originator, Rep. (now Sen.) Danny Akaka, D-Hawaii, and it was quite clear that they were giving authorization to the DOT to approve all non-crewed missions including lunar. I testified at the dammned hearings! It's also a fact that any mission includes a review for compliance with all US international treaty obligations.

So in addition to being mathematically and scientifically illiterate and innumerate, these people also seem to know nothing about legislation, regulatory procedures, or international law.

He's right, of course. I was sufficiently distracted by the other idiocies that I forgot to point this out. Maybe we should just introduce those guys to Buzz Aldrin for a course of instruction in the realities of space exploration and development.