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.
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?