Next, Go Back to the Moon
By Paul D. Spudis
posted: 08:10 am ET
20 March 2000
The history of the United States shows that only two kinds of big engineering projects enjoy long-term funding stability: those related to national defense (the Panama canal, the Apollo program) and those that develop our economic infrastructure (the Tennessee Valley Authority, the interstate highway system).
Neither the search for worlds around other stars nor for extraterrestrial life fits those categories. Thus, they will never get enough funding to support significant human space activity. And if there are no people in space, to marshal the lukewarm public support the space program enjoys, NASA will wither away.
Ask anyone in the agency what the next big goal is and the answer will be "Mars." The science division has a detailed plan for robotic exploration of the Red Planet, culminating with sample return missions late in the new century's first decade; these are preludes to human journeys. Advanced studies focus almost exclusively on manned Mars missions and the search for evidence of former or existing martian life.
The problem with this grand scheme is that it won’t happen. Simply put, no matter how it is approached, repackaged, scaled back or reinvented, human exploration of Mars, costing hundreds of billions of dollars and requiring decades, has had and will continue to have negligible success at getting started.
There is no room in the federal budget for a project of this magnitude. The fraction of the budget that goes to "discretionary" spending steadily decreases over time as "mandatory" entitlements expand. To obtain long-term federal funding, a technical project must relate to some overriding national priority and must produce payback on time scales commensurate with political terms of office (4-6 years).
For the past 30 years, NASA has maintained an Apollo-type management style but without a long-term space goal. Bureaucratic survival struggles have raged. Scientific and engineering talent has drifted away through attrition and retirement, while innovative ideas and clever plans have been lost or buried.
What’s the alternative to NASA’s demise? We must return people to the moon. A lunar return is achievable within five years, at a cost an order of magnitude lower than that of a manned Mars mission.
Recently, water ice deposits were discovered in permanently dark areas near the moon's poles. The surrounding mountain peaks are bathed in near-constant sunlight. This terrain is one of the most valuable pieces of real estate in the solar system. The potential for economic explosion, scientific discovery and national security is staggering.
The polar ice can support human life, both as water and as breathable oxygen derived from it. We can also use the hydrogen and oxygen extracted from water as rocket propellant. With launch costs approaching $50,000 per pound to low-Earth orbit by shuttle, one can marvel at the value of over 10 billion tons of water ice located in the lunar polar regions.
By developing the infrastructure for operations on the moon, we obtain routine human access to geosynchronous orbit (GEO), the 23,000-mile high zone where many communication satellites orbit.
Why is this important? The next generation of comsats will be enormously heavy, complex machines, requiring megawatts of power and maintenance by people. Such satellites will be needed as demand for bandwidth, the prime commodity of the 21st century information society, increases exponentially.
By going to the moon and mining the abundant water ice at the poles for rocket propellant, we will be able to access GEO with as much machine and human capability as is required to build, service, and operate the comsats of the new century. Such capability is worth literally trillions of dollars.
A return to the moon offers many scientific opportunities. The geological processes that operate on rocky bodies throughout our solar system have occurred on the Moon. We can study impacts, volcanism and the deformation of the moon’s crust to understand better those processes on the other planets.
The moon is also a superb platform for astronomical observation. It has no atmosphere, a cold, dark sky, a fourteen-day "nighttime," and a seismically stable landscape, enabling the use of very sensitive instruments. The moon's far side is permanently shielded from the radio noise and static of Earth, permitting observations in totally new parts of the radio spectrum.
By returning to the moon, we will learn to live and work in space. We can acquire the skills needed to survive off-planet and prepare for human travel beyond the moon. Such experience includes not only testing equipment and techniques but also understanding the social complexities of humanity’s first foothold on another world. It makes sense to learn these undoubtedly difficult lessons on a planet only three days from Earth, rather than on one requiring a year for return.
We have a unique opportunity to accomplish important national goals. A return to the moon will aid our security by giving the United States access to valuable lunar resources (our first off-world "El Dorado") and will augment our economic infrastructure by increasing access to Earth orbit. A program to return to the moon ties NASA to important national priorities and makes it a player in the emerging solar system economy. The moon gives NASA an exciting, vigorous mission and paves the way to the planets beyond.
Paul D. Spudis is a planetary scientist and the author of The Once and Future Moon, published by the Smithsonian Institution University Press.