Bang, zoom, straight to the moon
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While campaigning in Florida, Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich declared that by the end of his second term as president, he would have an established base on the moon.
Putting aside the fact that he does not look particularly likely to even get a first term, the notion of setting up a lunar base is ludicrous in the current political environment. Now, don’t get me wrong: I would love to see more space exploration done. I believe we as a nation ran with the shuttle program far longer than we should have. But there are major difficulties with setting up a lunar base, as Gingrich declared we should, and for the most part, it all comes down to cost.
Manned space exploration is expensive, particularly when you are pushing something brand new. For example, the Gemini and Apollo programs in the 1960s, which led to us reaching the moon in the first place, cost approximately $30 billion in 1975 money, which translates to about $126 billion today.
When former President George W. Bush declared in 2004 that he wanted to see NASA return to the moon, he gave them nowhere near the funding needed to do so. NASA estimated a price tag of $104 billion. By the time President Barack Obama killed the program at the end of 2009, NASA had spent only $9.1 billion on the project.
In today’s political climate, where the Republican members of Congress are actively trying to slash spending in any program that does not touch defense, how feasible would a moon base be? Although NASA has gotten a funding boost under Obama for his long-term asteroid visitation program, they still got less than he requested from Congress.
Additionally, there are new technologies we would need to develop for a lunar base. Researchers on the moon would either need some way to grow their own food, or would need it shuttled to them, which would be extremely expensive. While ice has been discovered on the moon, it remains to be seen if it exists in large enough quantities to supply a population with water.
Finally, there is the radiation. Our sun puts out a lot of radiation, which is on top of the cosmic radiation that permeates the universe. The Earth protects us from the lion’s share of that thanks to the Van Allen radiation belts — a magnetic field surrounding the planet — and the atmosphere, but these are two things the moon lacks. Thus, to keep themselves safe from solar radiation, astronauts would need radiation shielding technology. A base made of heavy lead may protect them reasonably well, but it would also be very, very expensive to ship something so heavy to the moon.
Gingrich also mentioned mining Helium-3, a substance extremely rare on Earth but relatively easy to find on the moon, as a fusion fuel source. It seems a bit premature, however, given that we have not developed fusion energy reactors, nor would it be economical to strip mine the lunar surface and rocket the stuff back here at this point.
I get the major thrust of his speech: he wanted to placate the space industry in Florida, which has seen job losses as a result of the space shuttle program ending. And like me, he may genuinely believe there is a fundamental need to explore space.
When you get down to it, though, we have to get our technology to a point where we can do that safely and properly; and at current funding levels, it will take longer than nine years before we are ready to build a permanent moon base.