A Return to the Moon by 2020?

The International Space Station can be seen as a small object in lower right of this image of the moon in the early evening January 4, 2011, in the skies over the Houston area flying at an altitude of 242.8 miles.

Yesterday, a candidate for the Republican nomination as president, Newt Gingrich, gave a speech on space policy in Florida. “By the end of my second term, we will have the first permanent base on the moon, and it will be American,” Gingrich boldly stated. I assume that he means this Moon base will be created before inauguration day in January 2021—remember that it took longer than that for the first Apollo astronauts to reach the lunar surface—and this was clearly the most spectacular of his assertions.

Such a return to the Moon is certainly something that the space community has desired for a long time, and it will be embraced by this community. But this is not the first time national leaders have made similar statements. Of course, JFK famously declared on May 25, 1961, that “I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth.” Slightly more than eight years later the first astronauts erected the American flag on the lunar surface, but that omits the broad political, technological, and economic effort that made it possible. I have been puzzled for years by a statement that goes something like, “If we just had a president with the vision and foresight of John F. Kennedy to announce a bold space initiative all would be well with NASA.”

But we have had other national leaders who made those bold proclamations. Twenty years to the day after the Apollo 11 landing, President George H.W. Bush made another Kennedy-like speech announcing the ambitious Space Exploration Initiative (SEI) that was intended to return people to the Moon by 2000, establish a lunar base, and, then, using the space station and the Moon, reach Mars by 2010. The price tag for this effort was estimated at a whopping $400 billion over two decades and the initiative never gained traction in Congress or with the American people. On January 14, 2004, President George W. Bush performed essentially a reenactment of his father by announcing a “Vision for Space Exploration” that called for humans to reach the Moon and Mars during the next thirty years. It did not gain much political or funding support either.

Astronauts on the lunar surface arrived there slightly more than eight years after President John F. Kennedy gave his May 25, 1961, speech announcing the program. Will this be the case again?

Will Mr. Gingrich’s proposal experience a similar fate? Space policy expert John Logsdon certainly thinks so: “When we are not expecting a U.S. crewed launch to the ISS until 2016-2017 and are just getting started on a lunar-class launch vehicle, establishing a lunar outpost by 2020 is a fantasy,” As Logsdon SPACE.com, “It would be much better to set realistic goals, but that is not Mr. Gingrich’s strong suit.”

I believe that a core question needs to be considered here—one that has yet to be satisfactorily resolved since the Apollo program of the 1960s and early 1970s—“why return to the Moon?” The U.S. went to the Moon during the space race for very specific geopolitical objectives with reference to the Cold War with the Soviet Union. Absent those geopolitical issues there is every reason to believe that a human lunar landing program would have either not been completed or at least not been undertaken on the schedule of Apollo.

The justification for returning to the Moon or mounting a human mission to Mars is a significant question that hasn’t been seriously addressed in the last score of years; I did not hear Mr. Gingrich offer a compelling rationale for going back to the Moon now. Of the traditional reasons for lunar exploration—pride at home and prestige abroad, economic harvest, national security, etc.—only prestige remains. There does not at present seem to be anything either sufficiently profitable or sufficiently terrifying found on the lunar surface. That may change in the future but without either economic justification or national security concerns to sustain such grand activities, I do not envision a confluence of support from the various political, social, and economic interests in the United States for a significant expenditure of national effort, human capital, and treasure to undertake a human mission to return to the Moon.

I would like to be proven wrong because I would dearly love to see humans on the Moon again in my lifetime, but I must question whether or not a sufficiently compelling reason for humans to return to the Moon will emerge in the near term. Clearly, we will be sending robotic probes to the Moon, and they may well find something astounding there. That could change everything. So to, could major technological breakthroughs that would make it much easier to reach the Moon and accomplish useful things there. Certainly, we live in interesting times.

What do you think?

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3 Responses to A Return to the Moon by 2020?

  1. Paul Spudis says:


    Try this on for a rationale:


    Comments or reaction?

    Thanks for the call-out to my “prizes” post yesterday.



  2. mike shupp says:

    I gather Mr Gingrich doesn’t expect NASA to build a moonbase or even to be much involved in creating it. He wishes to replace government-paid R&D programs with a series of prizes, which are expected to achieve the desired results more quickly and for about 10 % of what government programs might cost. Rockets to take the place of the SLS and the initial lunar base might be achieved for 20 billion dollars say, rather than the 140 billion estimatedd for the Constellation program; perhaps another 20 billion would suffice to place a prototype base on Mars. Thus the Gingrich space program is immune to the cost and schedule constraints that bedevil conventional NASA programs.

    Would it work? I skep, but I’m old fashioned. Gingrich will find supporters for his plans among conservatives and young engineers,and maybe ten years from now we will still be arguing about whether political partisanship and the lack of vision in NASA bureaucrats has once again ruined things for us all or been triumphantly overthrown.



  3. mike shupp says:

    ome belated thoughts. (1) Reactions from the internet punditariat have occurred, and it’s pretty clear Newt Gingrich didn’t make an especially good case for colonizing the moon.By and large the bloggers and commenters who noticed the incident have chosen to ridicule Gingrich not for proposing a bad scheme for lunar colonies, but for having any interest in them at all. All enlightened Americans just know space advocates are bonkers.

    (2) It strikes me, the book project you were contemplating last month or so, about the evolution of space buff philosophical and political attitudes, misses a point in some ways. What has mattered in the course of NASA/space program history is not so much the actions of the supporters, but the evolving attitudes of the people who ceased to be supporters.

    I.e., 40 years ago, perhaps 20-30% of US voters were generally approving of space programs. They would have approved of larger, more ambitious goals for space exploration (if not TOO expensive) ane expected considerable progress in future programs. By and large these voters were male, white, better educated, wealthier than average, younger than average. Another 20-30% of voters generally disapproved of space programs, and would have preferred diverting the spending to social programs. Typically these were women of all races, African American men, older and less educated people, less affluent people. (There were of course highly educated white males who also despised spaceprograms, many of them academics). And then there were people in the middle, roughly 40-60% of the population, who basically accepted space programs as something the government did, and not worthy of much attention unless it had a noticable impact on taxes. Roughly speaking, they had much the same reaction to space programs that they did to Coast Guard vessel construction programs — something it was occasionally interesting to see on TV news.

    What’s intriguing is that those attitudes seem to have lasted, roughly in the same numbers, in the same sectors of the public, from the early 1960’s onward for decades. And now it would seem they’ve changed. Perhaps it was the Challenger loss in 1986. Or perhaps interest in space was diverted by the internet and the rise of blogging. Or perhaps 40 years of holding manned space flight to earth orbit convinced enough people that spaceflight was pointless. Or the bitterness of present day politics has overridden sanity. Or the rise in computer gaming. Whatever. Attitudes have changed. The affluent educated voters who once supported manned programs have given up on them (while still supporting unmanned programs, I would argue). The people who used not to like space programs have not changed their opinions. The people once in the middle of this debate now find it old, stale, and uninteresting. And the relative handful of space bloggers and commenters on space related blogs seem to find partisan politics and libertarian economics of far more actual interest than actual accomplishments in space.

    There’s a story that merits telling, it seems to me. Not the unimportant intellectual wanderings of a few million introverted space buffs, but the shift in perception in an entire culture — a culture whose spokesmen constantly proclaimed its superiority and world leadership. That’s the account that historians a thousand years hence will still find worth study — probably not just for the topic of spaceflight. Not a happy story, I admit, not one commercial publishers would choose to pick up, but an account worth having and preserving. Perhaps someone at NASA might be writing such a book?


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