Planet Earth

The Newt-onian Mechanics of Building a Permanent Moon Base

The CruxBy Phil PlaitJan 27, 2012 4:38 PM


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Phil Plait, the creator of the Discover blog Bad Astronomy, is an astronomer, lecturer, and author. He's written two books, dozens of magazine articles, and 12 bazillion blog articles. 

On Wednesday, January 25th, Republican presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich spoke to a crowd of supporters in Florida. In a short speech guaranteed to create a buzz---online, as well as among space enthusiasts---he declared that if elected president, "... by the end of my second term we will have the first permanent base on the moon and it will be American." That's a pretty bold statement. Unfortunately, it's also impossible. I'll note he followed that up with something that is far more likely:

We will have commercial near-Earth activities that include science, tourism, and manufacturing, and are designed to create a robust industry precisely on the model of the development of the airlines in the 1930s, because it is in our interest to acquire so much experience in space that we clearly have a capacity that the Chinese and the Russians will never come anywhere close to matching.

That's a lovely thought, but while that's a more realistic goal, it's likely to happen whether or not Gingrich makes it to the White House.

Private Parts His second statement is the easiest to discuss, and to dismiss. I agree with the sentiment, but what he's saying is already well on its way to being reality. We have several private companies vying to create commercial activities in orbit, including tourism and science. SpaceX has successfully launched rockets to orbit several times, and they are planning to do a rendezvous with the space station in the coming months as a demonstration that they can take supplies there. Virgin Galactic has shown it can do sub-orbital flights, and several other companies are on their way to space. Manufacturing is a far more difficult goal, but once a more reliable and cheaper method of getting to orbit is established, it's an inevitable outcome. With or without any possible future President Gingrich, private companies in space is already happening.

Race for Space I'm also not comfortable with raising the specter of another space race. Any attempts to get political motivation for exploring or exploiting space will inevitably bring to mind the idea of the Chinese. Have no doubts: the Chinese space program efforts are solid, and accelerating. When they say they want to have a moonbase by the 2020s, this is not bluster. They may very well be able to do it. But getting into a second space race with China would be suicide for our space program. Obviously, they have far more money than we do for such an endeavor. But more than that; what is the goal of a race? Answer: to win. And what happens after you win? Look to Apollo for that. The goal of the first space race in the 1950s and 60s was to beat the Soviets. We did: America got to the Moon first. But after that, enthusiasm for Apollo died rapidly, and Apollos 18--20 were canceled about a year after Armstrong first stepped foot on the Moon. After all, once you've won, why keep running? The point is, if we want to have a sustainable, permanent base on the Moon, then it has to live or die on its merits. As soon as we make it an "us versus them" scenario, the chances of long-term thinking drop precipitously.

The Moon is a Harsh Mistress Private industry getting into space is one thing. Building a base on the Moon, though, is an entirely different ball of wax basalt. First, of course, is the cost. One estimate, made by the Center for Strategic & International Studies, put the cost of establishing a modest four-person station at $35 billion (which includes the development of a lunar lander, but not the rocket to take it there). I suspect it would actually be much more, but let's run with that number. Clearly, NASA cannot afford to undertake this kind of mission with its current budget. To have this done by 2020 would mean spending on average $4 billion per year---roughly 1/4 of NASA's entire budget. Freeing up or finding that much extra cash seems unlikely, to say the least. NASA's new rocket program---the Space Launch System, or SLS---might be ready to take humans to the Moon by 2020, but realistically it may take longer... and setting boots on the Moon's surface is a long way from having an established permanent base.

Robbing NASA to pay... NASA? Now, don't get me wrong. When it comes to space exploration, in many ways I'm a starry-eyed optimist, but I've learned to temper that optimism with cold, hard, reality. And history shows that building a moonbase by 2020 according to Gingrich's ideas not only won't work, but would be a disaster for NASA. NASA simply can't do it in that timeframe; there's no place in the budget for that sort of mission, and it's unlikely in the extreme they'll get extra funding for this. Perhaps because of that, Gingrich proposed taking 10% of NASA's budget---some 1-2 billion dollars---and creating a new X Prize to motivate private industry to be involved. This has worked in the past as a catalyst for companies to work on difficult goals, like launching a piloted vehicle into space. However, going to the Moon and building a base would cost more than 1000 times as much as launching that sub-orbital rocket did, so it's not at all clear an X Prize like this would work. Add to that the money needed to keep the base running---an estimated $7.4 billion per year. That's a lot of cash for a fledgling corporation. Or even a government. It's more than third of NASA's annual budget. And even if an X Prize-type idea worked, who would be able to actually accomplish the goal of putting a base on the Moon in eight years? SpaceX is the only private company that has independently launched rockets into orbit, and while I think they have a bright future ahead, the clock is ticking. SpaceX is being extremely cautious about launching their rockets---as well they should be---and their next generation heavy-lift rocket is still being built. It won't launch for at least two years. While that might make the 2020 deadline achievable, again, it doesn't matter if there's a President Gingrich or not. For that goal, the market will decide. Of course, the elephant in the room for this mega-X Prize is where would that money come from, specifically? What part of NASA would get eviscerated to free up a couple of gigabucks? Either NASA takes on the Moon mission internally and has to sacrifice other projects to do it, or you gut NASA to get the money for the private sector to do it. Either way NASA gets crippled.

The vacuum of rhetoric A lot of the media have made fun of Gingrich for this plan. The irony is they're doing it for the wrong reason. A Moon base is being likened to science fiction, just some silly fluff. But that's grossly unfair. Space exploration is an issue that's important. It's vital to our nation for a host of reasons, but it is also costly in every sense of the word. If we go, we should go for the right reasons, and we should do it the right way. If we go, we must go to stay. The budget for this can't be set up on political election cycles, it must be based on the real constraints of engineering and technology, and far more importantly it must be based on a commitment to the future. If we do this, we must invest in the long haul. Gingrich's plan does not encompass that idea. Ineptly aimed media ridicule aside, what's clear is that Gingrich's speech was long on rhetoric but short on actual substance, something that tests well for the few days leading to the Republican primary in Florida (home of now-underused Cape Canaveral), but will snap if stretched to the presidential election in November. In other words, it sounds very much like a campaign promise made during a close race in a state that wants to hear that space still has a place.

Image: NASA

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