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.)
“By the end of my second term, we will have the first permanent base on the moon and it will be American,” the candidate insisted. “We will have commercial near-Earth activities that included science, tourism and manufacturing.”
“I accept the charge that I am an American and Americans are instinctively grandiose because we believe in a bigger future!” he exclaimed. “I want you to help me both in Florida and across the country so that you can someday say you were here the day it was announce that of course we’d have commercial space and near space. Of course we’d have a man colony on the moon that flew an American flag.”
Do we need a manned space program? Yes we do.
Does NASA need to get out of low Earth orbit? Yes.
Will the private sector get us there? Probably not.
Is Newt the leader we’ve been waiting for to get us re-focused on space? Highly unlikely.
Is Newt the second coming of JFK? Only in his own mind.
UPDATE: January 30, 2012
Phil Plait always has some good thoughts on these subjects.
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.
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.
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…
In the post for The Crux I was blunt, but held back my tongue a bit because that isn’t necessarily the venue for me to do otherwise. But here, on my blog, I’ll say this: Gingrich’s words were both transparent and hollow. I knew right away what he was claiming was simply not possible, either financially, technologically, or politically. Take your pick. And it was also clear to me that no matter how you slice it, NASA would get screwed royally if his Moon base plan were implemented, since it would mean billions of dollars moved away from NASA projects to finance this. I started digging deeper to see if my first reaction was wrong, and all I found showed I was righter than I first thought. Every way you try to do it, his plan would destroy NASA. And I’m not exaggerating; the amount of money we’re talking about taking away from NASA projects to fund a base his way would leave everything else in NASA facing cancellation. It’s really that simple.