Last week, Republican presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich made a bold claim: “By the end of my second term , we will have the first permanent base on the Moon and it will be American.” On the surface, it’s an intriguing and even exciting prospect to space enthusiasts. A base on the Moon would extend human presence in the Solar System and act as a stepping stone on the way to Mars. Or, it could bankrupt NASA and prove to be little more than an ill-thought out, dead-end program. (Gingrich proposed a lunar base by 2020 in Florida on January 25, 2012.)
On May 25, 1961, twenty days after Alan Shepard became the first American in space, Kennedy urged the nation to commit itself, “before this decade is out, to landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth.” Lucky for Kennedy — but only as far as space is concerned — the Cold War was escalating and space was a fertile battlefield. By choosing the Moon, he picked a finish line neither nation could reach at the time. Each had a fair shot at winning the race, and technological dominance was the prize. (Kennedy in 1961.)
But the Cold War was more than just a backdrop. It gave the American people a reason to support a manned spaceflight program with such a lofty goal. The climate was perfect in the 1960s to undertake a moonshot. The same can’t be said of modern day America.
The Centre for Strategic and International Studies looked into the cost of a four-man lunar base and start-up colony. Published in 2009, the report determined that construction of a lunar base would cost around $35 billion; once built, it would cost $7.5 billion every year for operation and maintenance. There’s a little wiggle room in this figure. The operational cost would go down if oxygen and hydrogen could be mined for use directly on the Moon.
The cost of a lunar base soars with the inclusion of supporting technologies like rockets to reach the Moon and vehicles to transport materials and men to its surface. NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS), the rocket that promise to surpass the capability of the Saturn V, is scheduled to make its first launch sometime in 2017. The Orion Multipurpose Crew Vehicle is following a similar timeline; it should be ready for unmanned testing by 2017. A manned mission with Orion launched on an SLS rocket is unlikely before 2021, and the total cost of the combined programs is estimated to run between $29 and $38 billion. (An artist’s concept of the SLS rocket.)
So the total cost of the first lunar base could be in the area of $78 billion. But when you add the cost of research and development of the technology behind the lunar colony, the cost is likely to spiral into hundreds of billions of dollars. As a reference point, every piece of the Apollo program came together for about $170 billion by today’s standards.
Building a lunar base — four-man or 13,000-man — would devastate NASA. It would take a huge fraction of the agency’s budget, which is already stretched, and effectively kill all science initiatives, like rovers on Mars, interplanetary probes, and orbiting telescopes. (An artist’s concept of a lunar base.)
So, to lessen the financial burden on NASA’s shoulders, Gingrich proposes heavy involvement from the private sector. X-Prize style programs would encourage entrepreneurs to solve the problems of getting to and landing on the Moon. But where would this money come from — NASA couldn’t foot this bill, and the market would need to recover really quickly and spectacularly for private companies to afford the resources to solve these technological challenges alone.
Gingrich has called on the private sector for near Earth orbital spaceflight as well — perhaps to free up NASA for this Moon base. As president, his secondary goal in space would be to increase commercial, tourist, and manufacturing activity in space, an industry explosion he hopes will mimic the developments in aviation in the 1930s. But the private sector is already taking the lead in this realm with companies like SpaceX working to launch to the International Space Station. It’s a trend likely to continue whether or not Gingrich moves into the White House. (Orion, NASA’s next manned spacecraft.)
The call for private spaceflight was a stronger point in Gingrich’s speech, but it was tainted by his qualification of why we need the ingenuity of our space faring citizens. “It is in our interest,” he said, “ 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 statement evoked cheers from the crowd and sent shivers down my spine. The way forward is cooperation in space, not competition; the research station at the South Pole should be our model.
Presidential hopefuls are notorious for making bold and unfulfillable promises that inspire citizens and sway voters. His speech last week was made in Florida, a state where space is the local business. The grand lunar ideas are unlikely to strike a chord with voters in Idaho or Wisconsin. It’s a big idea, but that doesn’t make it a good idea. There’s a big difference. (An artist’s concept of men exploring Mars.)
Kennedy’s big idea was a good one, though I’m sure there’s no shortage of people who would disagree. Subsequent presidents have tried to have their own Kennedy-Moon moment, making speeches and promises to inspire the nation to unite in support of a grand gesture.
In 1989, President George Bush Sr. challenged the nation to undertake a long-range program to land men on Mars. The report on the proposal, the “90-day study,” returned a figure of $500 billion for the program. It was a staggering figure, even if it was spread over 20 or 30 years. President George Bush Jr. followed in his father’s footsteps in 2004. He called for NASA to establish a permanent settlement on the Moon before moving on the Mars. (An artist’s concept of a greenhouse on Mars — a glimpse of our first colony?)
In these instances, part of the problem was the time frame for such an undertaking. Reaching the Moon was feasible when Kennedy set his goal — if it hadn’t been he would probably have set a different goal. The time frame is certainly one of Gingrich’s problems, but there’s one more central piece of the puzzle that’s missing in this audacious proposal: What’s the point?
Apollo was awesome, but it wasn’t sustainable. People lost interest after Apollo 11 and got nervous after Apollo 13. NASA’s budget was slashed. Apollos 18-20 were cancelled. The amazing and exciting plans that made up the Apollo Application Program were never realized save the short-lived Skylab program. We were left with the Shuttle, which failed to deliver on its promises. (Skylab in orbit.)
Anything this grand and long term in space has to be undertaken with more than political agenda at its root. It needs to have some return on investment and long-term payoff in more than just prestige. And it needs to not be tied up with the American election cycle.
But who knows. Maybe somehow Gingrich will win and the lunar base proposal will go through and he’s get his wish: to see an American flag waving in the magic space wind on the Moon.