Can (and Should) America Build a Base on the Moon?

February 14, 2012

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In a speech late last month, Newt Gingrich promised that his presidential intentions include establishing a moon base by 2020. How realistic is this lofty goal, and is the endeavor worthwhile?

"By the end of my second term, we will have the first permanent base on the moon and it will be American," Republican presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich recently announced to a Florida crowd, who responded first with laughter, then with applause. "I will, as president, encourage the introduction of the Northwest Ordinance for Space to put a marker down that we want Americans to think boldly about the future and we want Americans to go out and study hard and work hard and together, we're going to unleash the American people to build the country we love."

Although faced with criticism for this plan from fellow candidates and late-night talk-show hosts, Gingrich has stuck to his claims and has even seen support from mainstream scientists and science organizations.

Setting aside the political implications of such an announcement, the real question at hand is: Can it be done?

Artist rendering of a future moon base 610x388.jpg

The idea of establishing a moon base is not new, and hasn't always been the exclusive property of science-fiction authors. Even before President Kennedy envisioned America's bold program to send a man to the moon within a decade in 1962, the U.S. Army was developing plans for lunar military forts and outposts in the late 1950s. In 2004, President George W. Bush outlined a space policy that highlighted lunar exploration and colonization as key to future manned endeavors into deeper realms of the galaxy. However, the Constellation changes instituted by President Barack Obama have tempered America's future presence in space.

While NASA currently has no plans to return to the moon, that does not mean moon colonization is impossible.

"It's definitely possible," Dale Ketcham, director of the Spaceport Research and Technology Institute at the University of Central Florida, recently told The Atlantic. "I mean, we got to the moon with no program at all in nine years. Can we do it? Clearly we can. The challenge is, can we convince the Congress that this is where scarce resources need to be."

However, estimates of the cost are staggering. Space.com notes that an independent analysis by the Center for Strategic and International Studies estimated that "establishing a manned international lunar base would cost about $35 billion, with an additional price tag of $7.35 billion per year to keep the base operating."

Even Discover's Phil Plait, an astronomer and self-described space exploration "optimist," concedes that landing humans on the moon by 2020 "would mean spending an average of $4 billion per year — roughly a quarter of NASA's entire budget. Freeing up or finding that much extra cash seems unlikely, to say the least."

The Economist points out that private companies have already developed some of the technology that would be required for a lunar base, and presents a budget estimate that is much easier to digest.

According to The Economist, NASA could use "the Falcon Heavy [spaceflight launch system], due for launch next year by SpaceX," which is confident it can make part of this craft reusable and bring the cost down to $2 million-$3 million, assuming a high flight rate. "With seven astronauts per lunar flight, the cost per person to the moon would be around $700,000. So in theory, one might be able to transport 15,000 people to the moon for around $10 billion. Not bad," The Economist explains.

From there, the costs of feeding, clothing and keeping those 15,000 alive start to balloon.

To help pay for these costs, and to present skeptics with a useful purpose for a lunar base, many theorists point to the moon as a source for rare-earth elements. Enthusiasts specify helium-3, a rare-earth element that could be used in nuclear fusion, which is abundant on the moon and sells for $5,000 per liter.

However, as Discovery News cautions, "Physicists have yet to achieve pure helium-3 fusion, but if they did, we'd have a clean, virtually infinite power source."

Regardless of the daunting price tag and the human cost of sending human beings to the moon to stay, many have appealed to the loftier goals of humanity in endorsing a moon base. Even President Kennedy, when challenging the country to first reach the moon in 1962, spoke in grandiose terms:

Many years ago the great British explorer George Mallory, who was to die on Mount Everest, was asked why did he want to climb it. He said, "Because it is there." Well, space is there, and we're going to climb it, and the moon and the planets are there, and new hopes for knowledge and peace are there. And, therefore, as we set sail, we ask God's blessing on the most hazardous and dangerous and greatest adventure on which man has ever embarked.
What do you think? Is a permanent moon base a worthwhile endeavor for us? Let us know in the comments section below.

Related

Things to Do on the Moon

The Entrepreneurial Space Race

What NASA's New Budget Means for Aerospace

The Future of U.S. Space Flight

Resources

Newt Gingrich in Florida Shoots for the Moon by Ginger Gibson Politico, Jan. 25, 2012

Text of President John Kennedy's Rice Stadium Moon Speech President John Kennedy, Sept. 12, 1962

Moonport: A History of Apollo Launch Facilities and Operations by Charles D. Benson and William Barnaby Faherty NASA Special Publication-4204, 1978

President Bush Announces New vision for Space Exploration Program President George W. Bush, Jan. 14, 2004

Is Newt's Moon Colony Fantasy or Science Fiction? by E.D. Kain The Atlantic Monthly, Jan. 27, 2012

Newt Gingrich's Moon Colony by 2020: Can it Be Done? by Clara Moskowitz Space.com, Jan. 30, 2012

The Newt-onian Mechanics of Building a Permanent Moon Base by Phil Plait Discover, Jan. 27, 2012

The Pros and Cons of Moon Base Gingrich The Economist, Jan. 30, 2012

This Moon was Made for Mining (Helium-3) by Jennifer Ouellette Discovery News, Feb. 21, 2011

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