The Newt-onian Mechanics of Building a Permanent Moon Base

By Phil Plait | January 27, 2012 11:38 am

Phil Plait, the creator of the Discover blog Bad Astronomy, is an astronomer, lecturer, and author. He’s written two books, dozens of magazine articles, and 12 bazillion blog articles. 

On Wednesday, January 25th, Republican presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich spoke to a crowd of supporters in Florida. In a short speech guaranteed to create a buzz—online, as well as among space enthusiasts—he declared that if elected president, “… by the end of my second term we will have the first permanent base on the moon and it will be American.”

That’s a pretty bold statement. Unfortunately, it’s also impossible.

I’ll note he followed that up with something that is far more likely:

We will have commercial near-Earth activities that include science, tourism, and manufacturing, and are designed to create a robust industry precisely on the model of the development of the airlines in the 1930s, because it is in our interest to acquire so much experience in space that we clearly have a capacity that the Chinese and the Russians will never come anywhere close to matching.

That’s a lovely thought, but while that’s a more realistic goal, it’s likely to happen whether or not Gingrich makes it to the White House.

 


Private Parts

His second statement is the easiest to discuss, and to dismiss. I agree with the sentiment, but what he’s saying is already well on its way to being reality. We have several private companies vying to create commercial activities in orbit, including tourism and science. SpaceX has successfully launched rockets to orbit several times, and they are planning to do a rendezvous with the space station in the coming months as a demonstration that they can take supplies there. Virgin Galactic has shown it can do sub-orbital flights, and several other companies are on their way to space. Manufacturing is a far more difficult goal, but once a more reliable and cheaper method of getting to orbit is established, it’s an inevitable outcome.

With or without any possible future President Gingrich, private companies in space is already happening.


Race for Space

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.

 


The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

Private industry getting into space is one thing. Building a base on the Moon, though, is an entirely different ball of wax basalt.

First, of course, is the cost. One estimate, made by the Center for Strategic & International Studies, put the cost of establishing a modest four-person station at $35 billion (which includes the development of a lunar lander, but not the rocket to take it there). I suspect it would actually be much more, but let’s run with that number.

Clearly, NASA cannot afford to undertake this kind of mission with its current budget. To have this done by 2020 would mean spending on average $4 billion per year—roughly 1/4 of NASA’s entire budget. Freeing up or finding that much extra cash seems unlikely, to say the least. NASA’s new rocket program—the Space Launch System, or SLS—might be ready to take humans to the Moon by 2020, but realistically it may take longer… and setting boots on the Moon’s surface is a long way from having an established permanent base.

 


Robbing NASA to pay… NASA?

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.

And even if an X Prize-type idea worked, who would be able to actually accomplish the goal of putting a base on the Moon in eight years? SpaceX is the only private company that has independently launched rockets into orbit, and while I think they have a bright future ahead, the clock is ticking. SpaceX is being extremely cautious about launching their rockets—as well they should be—and their next generation heavy-lift rocket is still being built. It won’t launch for at least two years. While that might make the 2020 deadline achievable, again, it doesn’t matter if there’s a President Gingrich or not. For that goal, the market will decide.

Of course, the elephant in the room for this mega-X Prize is where would that money come from, specifically? What part of NASA would get eviscerated to free up a couple of gigabucks? Either NASA takes on the Moon mission internally and has to sacrifice other projects to do it, or you gut NASA to get the money for the private sector to do it. Either way NASA gets crippled.

 


The vacuum of rhetoric

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, something that tests well for the few days leading to the Republican primary in Florida (home of now-underused Cape Canaveral), but will snap if stretched to the presidential election in November. In other words, it sounds very much like a campaign promise made during a close race in a state that wants to hear that space still has a place.

 

Image: NASA

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  • vel

    Gingrich is only feeding the delusion that American has to be best and first for the baying dogs of the Tea Party. It’s a wonder the idiot hasn’t declared that we’ll beat the Commies!

  • Agt.Smith

    First, I question what real scientific gains the moon offers – going to the moon gets us no closer to going to any other planet in our solar system as the moons lack of atmosphere means any craft/shelter developed will be far different than one needed to visit Mars, for ex. And the relatively short length of the journey does not encourage vast innovation in propulsion, cosmic shielding or other deep-space survival requirements. Also, the presence of gravity, albeit weaker than Earth, doesn’t mean much in the way of new ways to do experiments either.

    But if we really want to get back on the moon, why are we not piggybacking with the Chinese? Aiding their space program would help foster good will between the countries, we can let them front the cost and provide our Space expertise in exchange. The ISS is proof that multinational space projects can be a success, and the longterm future of humanity relies on us losing this primitive notion of borders and us-versus-them and working together as a whole… of course Newt and the Republican party base their entire political platform with us versus them fearmongering, so it should be no surprise this is exactly how they want to frame the Space program as well.

  • Chris

    Not to mention the metal-munching moon mice which would reek havoc on any structures.

  • Kristen Clark

    Just because it is something people want to hear, does not make it necessarily untrue. Newt has made good on his promises before. He is fully capable of making this promise happen. And has no reason not to. So why doubt? Why not accept that a moon base is a viable and brilliant idea whose time has come, and that Newt is eager and willing to participate and lead the way in making that happen?

  • Jer

    Obviously, they have far more money than we do for such an endeavor.

    Seriously? China has more money to invest in space exploration than we do? Do you really want to make that statement?

    China has the ability to allocated more money for space exploration than we do because their government is more autocratic and don’t have to worry about the messy politics of budget allocation (and the sacrosanct military budget coupled with the idea that taxes are never allowed to be raised on anyone for any reason and when possible must be cut at every opportunity). But there is no way that they actually HAVE far more money than we do for it if we wanted to go about doing it.

  • ThatGuy

    I thought the line the Simpsons writers gave Homer a few weeks back when they did their Tea Party/Gravy Boat Party parody episode was very apt: “When you stick your flag in the moon and say ‘Now, we’re done trying!’, that’s the gravy.”

  • Progman

    I also didn’t like the xenophobic tone of his plan either. The idea that we can proceed into space without international allies is way outdated. It will only happen with intentional cooperation. If we get back into the us against the world mentality, we’ll bring back all the old aggressions that marked the latter half of the last century, it’s time to move ahead with a cooperative model.

  • Pete

    Very good write up. You are right. We must either go to stay, or not go. And we mustr wait till all the technological and other ducks line up properly….

    But bear in mind that Newt is a politician. Politicians say what is expedient to THEIR interests.
    So perhaps we should not fault his extremely short term viewpoints!
    He simply cannot help himself!

    Newt is NOT a scientist. And the business of space is science.
    He makes a big deal of being a history teacher. Whoopie! “Modern European History” – which he studied in the 1950’s!
    And this has precisely WHAT relevance to today? OR to Space, or to the Moon?

    We need a new breed of politician.
    Newt, et al, are the old breed. So is Obama, sadly. (Although he may well be “the least evil” of a number of bad alternatives… It is hard to tell.)

    The politicians we need, are not lying lawyers, nattering history teachers, or even venture (vulture?) capitalists hoping for another big score.
    I am not sure how to define what we need. I can tell what we do not need.

    What we do need would involve at least the following:
    Part scientist, part engineer, part small businessman, part economist, part entrepreneur, part builder, part diplomat, part teacher. They need a good sound background on general history, and also have to be a bit of a futurist.

    And that is my 2 cents.

  • Scott P.

    “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.”

    Huh? China is a very poor country. It’s been getting richer, but is still very poor compared to the U.S. Our total GDP is about 2.5 times that of China. And they have three times as many people to spread that over. They have far less money than we do.

  • Anthony

    Am I mistaken in believing that there is no atmosphere protecting the moon from the sun. Or does the earth’s outer atmosphere protect the moon somehow?

  • Fan of both BA and DA

    I thought the moon mice ate green cheese, which is why the settled on the moon in the first place?

  • Ken

    a robust industry precisely on the model of the development of the airlines in the 1930s

    Back in 2001, after the airlines needed help to avoid bankruptcy post-9/11, I read an article where someone added up the airline industry’s profit and losses since the 1930s. The pattern is a few years of middling profits, then one carrier goes bankrupt with huge losses. The net, over that seventy years, was pretty close to zero; the industry isn’t profitable, although any individual carrier might be for a couple of decades.

    So I’m not sure this is the best model on which to create a “robust” industry.

  • http://educatederosion.blogspot.com/ Jackson

    I would love for the US to build a moon base, but only if they are going to give NASA the money to do so. If any politician expects this to happen on any time frame, they should at least keep the current budget for current projects, and then add the money necessary for the moon base. However, that won’t happen, science and exploration are only important in rhetoric to politicians not in reality

  • David

    Phil did you ever see the TV movie called Plymouth it was made 1991. It might the most realistic Moon colony idea ever depicted, maybe. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TGSnrKrm4-w&feature=related

  • http://astronommer.blogspot.com PJF

    Al Gore could do it! He has ridden the mighty Moon Worm!

    Seriously though, very good points all. Particularly about getting caught up in election cycles. For any plan to succeed, it will have to weather multiple administrations, and have a long-term set of goals that transcend partisan causes.

  • Messier Tidy Upper

    Not a fan of Newt Gingrich but that was the best speech and idea from him I’ve ever seen.

    When it comes to space exploration and space science I’ve long considered the Republican party – for all its other anti-science issues (Cough, *Climate contrianism*, cough, *creationism*, cough) – to be Astronomical Units ahead.

    Obama’s dismissive line about us “not needing to go to the Moon because we’ve already been there” lost him any respect ihad for him befreoand had me seeing red.

    We haven’t been to the Moon. Not in my lifetime. Not to all but a few tiny scattered spots all on the one side. Only twelve men a couple of generations ago. There is still so much to learn and achive and create there.

    No fan of either politician here but at least Newt Gingrich is promoting a positive, bold vision for space which is far more than Barack Hussein Obama has ever done. Obama’s watch has seen NASA decline massively and lose many capabilties and long with its way. No, none of the US presidents since JFK has been that great human space~wise but Obama would have to be worst so far in my view.

    Gingrich’s speech wasn’t quite up to JFK standards but, by Jove, it was a lot better than anything else that’s been offered for far too long a time.

    The Apollo Moon landings, IMHON, were the best things that the United States of America – Humanity full stop even – has ever managed to accomplish. The failure to follow up and keep going after taking that one small step -horrendously disappointing, pathetic and feeble.

    If I was American, (which I’m not) I’d now be awfully tempted to hold my nose and vote for Newt based on this one spech and bold idea because in this one respect at least he’s a lot more pro-science and pro- future thjan anyone else running in 2012. I hope Romney and Obama come up with something better but I doubt they will.

  • Messier Tidy Upper

    Newt’s excellent speech would of course need to be backed up by his actions too – starting with some seriously appropriately huge funding increases for NASA.

    Yes, I do have big doubts over whether Newt’s words would lead to that.

    OTOH, at least Gingrich is putting forward a bold advancing plan for space exploration which makes him far superior in my estimination to the others – incl. Obama – running for POTUS in 2012.

    Course there would be trade-offs in other areas but y’know I do reckon it would be worth it. After all, it seems unlikely Obama will act on HIRGO too.

  • Messier Tidy Upper

    PS. Why can’t we edit our comments here like we can on the BA blog? :-(

  • http://tispaquin.blogspot.com Douglas Watts

    Financially and technologically, the US could have a moon base in place in 5 years. It’s just a bunch of old 1960s technology and extra O2 canisters and astronaut sticks for food. For the price of the Iraq

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  • http://tispaquin.blogspot.com Douglas Watts

    For the price of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, the US could have had a 50 person moon base in place 10 years ago. It’s just a bunch of old 1960s technology and extra O2 canisters and chocolate astronaut sticks. With the addition of an extra few support landers, Armstrong and Aldrin could have stayed on the moon for a month or more. What is so hard about this?

  • http://astronommer.blogspot.com Joseph G

    I’ve heard of “single-issue voters” before, but this is ridiculous :-P C’mon, Messier, it’s not like Newt would actually DO anything. Remember Bush and Mars? Bush had all kinds of “bold visions for space,” but none of them ever went anywhere. And it’s not like he was averse to spending money!

  • Don

    This is not a little four man outpost he is proposing, he’s talking about a city of 20,000 people. With that many people they supposedly can petition the US government to become a state. Never mind that the US signed a treaty in 1966 which bans any country claiming any part of the moon as sovereign territory. The planning logistics alone will take more than 8 years. The ISS is the largest object constructed in space so far and contains 15,000 cubic feet of habitable space, it only holds 6 people. Forget about the materials needed to build this outpost, how many launches and what will it cost just to shuttle 20,000 people to the moon?

    Newt is a crackpot. Pay no attention to the ravings of this lunatic. He will soon fade from the stage when his empty rhetoric no longer entertains the weak minded.

  • http://www.soloespolitica.com Bill Bones

    @ #5, #9:

    it is not about how large is your budget, but about how many funds you are willing to allocate to a certain purpose/goal.

    And certainly the Chinese are far more willing to allocate money to space ventures than your Congress, who has spent the last 20-ish budgets cutting down NASA’s budget.

    The CNSA is comparativley small but is well funded and has got political support. Whereas the NASA is large, underfunded and is the first to get budget cuts whenever America’s s1% need a tax cut.

  • http://dvschroeder.blogspot.com Dan Schroeder

    In today’s dollars, the full cost of the Apollo program was about $200 billion. Does anyone seriously think we could establish and maintain a moon base for less than that?

  • Paul

    Newt has failed to provide a convincing justification for this moon base. And no, mining the moon fails as a justification.

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  • ES

    You keep mentioning SpaceX as the poster child of commercial launch development.

    They are doing great work, but the Falcons are by no means the first commercially developed launch vehicle. They are largely following in the footsteps left by the Orbital Sciences Pegasus over 20 years ago (which is still in active production; NuSTAR is going to be lofted by one this April).

    For grins, put the rocket portion of the air-launched concept vehicle from Scaled Composites and SpaceX side by side with a Pegasus. Note the similarities in the rocket design. It’s no accident – SC makes the wing on the Pegasus launcher.

  • Luis

    @Messier Tidy Upper:

    you are confusing “bold” with “feasible”. Romney could go out tomorrow and declare that, if Gingrich wants a permanent Moon base by the end of his second term, dammit, he will build a permanent Mars base by the end of his first term. That would be way bolder, but I doubt it would make you switch your support to Romney. A permanent Mars base by the end of 2016 is unfeasible even with an international cooperative effort and spending on an unprecedented scale. The idea that a single nation could achieve it is simply laughable.

    Gingrich’s Moon base is not as obviously unfeasible as Romney’s hypothetical Mars base, but “not as obviously unfeasible” still entails “unfeasible”, as Phil has detailed. Supporting Gingrich on the basis that it is “bold” shows a preference for form over substance (or more precisely, for rhetoric over facts).

  • http://www.hobbyspace.com/ Clark S. Lindsey

    There is, in fact, substantial evidence that supports the feasibility of establishing a lunar base by 2020 within NASA’s human spaceflight budget. E.g., groups at United Launch Alliance, which launches an Atlas V or Delta IV every month or so, have for many years published papers showing that a lunar base could be built without the huge expense of a new super heavy lift rocket like the SLS.

    For example, the “Exploration” section of the library on the ULA website (www.ulalaunch.com/site/pages/Education_PublishedPapers.shtml) includes the paper, “A Commercially Based Lunar Architecture” by Zegler et al (2009), which lays out a plan using only rockets like the Atlas V. A key component of this architecture is the orbital propellant depot. Most of the payload of a SLS for a lunar mission will consist of just dumb propellants. Fuel depots would allow for a combination of economies of scale via a high flight rate and competition among different rocket providers to drive down the cost per kg of fuel (and everything else) to orbit substantially. In space hardware can be assembled from components launched on such rockets.

    This is not just a ULA concept. As Kenneth Chang (tinyurl.com/7pxb62p) reported this week in the NYT, an internal NASA study also found that a depot based scheme would save many billions over a SLS based approach. Other independent studies have gotten similar results.

    The SLS and the grossly overpriced Orion programs will cost at least $30B over the next decade. If that money were instead to go to useful space tech development such as depots, this would enable ambitious deep space projects like a lunar base without expanding the NASA budget or robbing space science funding.

    As you note, commercial efforts will also drive down costs. E.g., SpaceX hopes to achieve $1000/lb cost to LEO with the Falcon Heavy, a factor of 5-10 below standard costs. Bigelow Aerospace, which has put two prototype expandable space station modules into orbit, has shown plans for using similar modules for lunar structures.

    Taking advantage of innovative new ideas on how to do space development and using new low cost commercial rockets and space systems would allow for an affordable lunar base in a decade.

  • peer

    Is China richer than the US? Depends on your definition on “rich”. The GDP is lower in China, yes. But China has much less debt a lower deficit and -being no democrazy a quicker way of putting the money where they want it. If China would wanted to outrace the US, they would put less money in education, social wellfare (anyway basiccly nonexistent) etc. Not to mention yanking the chain of theUS as their no. 1 creditor…

  • Tim

    Careful folks, your liberalism is showing. Seriously, the Tea Party hate (note that Occupy Wall Street doesn’t suffer the hate that is heaped on the Tea Party despite the violence, vandalism, and even rapes that happened in the OWS camps but you don’t see in the Tea Party rallies) has reached the point in which you oppose the Tea Party’s position just because the Tea Party supports it. Gingrich is taking space serious, something the space community has been begging presidential candidates to do. And Gingrich is not just making talking points either. He’s been pro-space and advocated prizes for private entities back in his days in Congress. I’m a conservative and a registered Republicans and I can put my partisanship aside long enough to frown upon the contempt being shown by the other Republican candidates. I would hope the leftists in the space community can at least put their partisanship aside as well and at least speak out against the Republican candidates and the talking heads in the news media for treating space as though it’s a joke.

  • http://spygod-tales.blogspot.com/ J. Edward Tremlett

    “If I was American, (which I’m not) I’d now be awfully tempted to hold my nose and vote for Newt based on this one spech and bold idea because in this one respect at least he’s a lot more pro-science and pro- future thjan anyone else running in 2012.”

    Well, on behalf of those who would have to deal with that ethically-challenged culture warrior in the Oval Office, let me say how grateful I am that you have no real say in the matter, other than online.

    The interesting part of his speech, that wasn’t covered here, is that he thinks it could become the 51st state. Under the current treaty on the moon, no one gets to own it, so no one could turn a chunk of it into a state or province. The fact that he either does not know this, or else knows it but is willing to ignore it in order to fire up Manifest Destiny dreams, speaks very poorly of him.

    I’d like to see a moonbase, too, but I’d prefer America take the lead in creating an international effort. we all shoulder the costs, we all reap the rewards, and walk out into the universe as a single world, united in discovery. That would truly be a reason to go there, apart from the science we could only do there.

  • IW

    Seriously, is it necessary to advertise “scientific’ T-shirts by having a woman expose her underwear in the advertising block to the right (Snorgtees)? Who controls these ads?

    Ed: Hi, IW. Those ads are run through Google’s AdSense, a common ad-placement program. We’ll keep our eyes out for Snorgtees ads that go over the line. If any other users object, please send an email to webmaster-at-discovermagazine-dot-com.

  • IW

    What, exactly, would be the point of a base on the Moon?

    To test materials? We can do that here on Earth for a fraction of the cost.
    To mine materials? We can do that here on Earth for a fraction of the cost.
    To develop new manufacturing technologies? We can do that here on Earth for a fraction of the cost.

    What, exactly, are we going to get back in return for a massive $35 billion up front (that we don’t have, believe it or not and that will far more likely be in the region of Dan Schroeder’s suggestion #25), and then some seven billion per year ever after (for four people)?

    If we’re going to go for the gusto, let the next program be either a program to find and develop alternative energy sources which will reward us endlessly, and/or to find ways of providing clean abundant water for everyone, worldwide, which will reward the entire planet endlessly and will provide for the health of, and also facilitate the feeding of children who are currently starving.

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  • http://dvschroeder.blogspot.com Dan Schroeder

    To estimate the cost of any big space project, a reasonable rule of thumb is to take whatever number the true believers are quoting and multiply it by 10. That was the order of magnitude of the ratio of actual cost to early official estimates for the shuttle program, the ISS, and the Hubble and Webb space telescopes. If moon base proponents are claiming it’ll be different this time, the burden of proof is on them to show they can actually deliver technology for human space flight at a cost of only 10% of the status quo. Until they actually start launching humans into space at such tremendously reduced costs, there’s no reason to take them seriously.

  • Terry Lambert

    So, given that price, any one of the top 5 richest people according to Forbes could buy a moon base out of pocket. Carlos Slim Helu of Telmex could buy 2 and have $4B left over. Any two of the top 34 on the Forbes list could go “halfsies” on it as a joint project. Larry and Sergey could buy one for Google.

    And we could have 3.5 of them for the cost of bringing everyone home from Afghanistan for one year, according to the National Priorities Project.

  • Aidan

    Oh, and as an ad-on to Terry lamberts post. In Canada, we just cancelled the ‘Long gun registry’, which was costing us 4 bill a year in taxpayer money. This is Canada, our population consists of a thin strip bordering the U.S, and we still have quite a bit of money. I think we could pull this off if we did a joint project, like the ISS.

  • http://www.furaffinity.net/user/anticarrot ANTIcarrot

    Maths here seems incorrectly extrapolated from out of date data. It’s based upon chemical rockets, and NASA business as usual.

    NASA’s own figures (backed up by the rocket equation, and so reliable) show that boosting the ISS’ orbit using VASIMR instead of chemical rockets will save about $200M out of a $210M fuel budget. This is a cost saving that can be applied to any deltaV heavy operation, which includes lunar bases. SpaceX also offers substantial cost savings compaired to SLS, or any varient thereof.

    There is a very simple way to free up a large chunk of NASA’s budget. Stop spending money in Florida. Suddenly you’ve freed up almost $10B a year, which is $80B over two presidential terms. Even if we accept the $35B cost of a moon base (which likely is a massive over estimate) I’d like to see what SpaceX could do with $45B over a five year period. I’m pretty sure they could get manned Dragon and the Falcon-Heavy up and running, with probably $40B left over for operations. Hell, for that money they might work Falcon Heavy into a full blown Triamise, and slash launch costs by another 90% on top of what they already promise.

    Of course the latter would be politically untenable for rice-bowl contractors, and congress, and Mr Gingrich himself – but that is very different from saying impossible.

  • Doug

    If we really want to explore space, we should stop wasting so much money putting humans up there. Robots and probes can accomplish so much more for so much less.

  • christina knight

    i am afraid that the only way a moon colony can be made feasible is if vast natural resources can be found that can be exploited and used to offset the costs of building and maintaining a permanent moon colony. of course if such resources are found a larger population will be required to exploit them efficiently. this also means an exponential increase in the cost of building and maintaining a larger and safer moon colony (with a failsafe life-support system). a moon colony of significant size may cost in the trillions to build, maintain and continuously resuuply. christina knight

  • Leon

    They are already playing, how many campaign promises can I make and then break after I’m elected.

  • LarryW

    Gringrich’s proposal is pure garbage. It’s a complete waste of money and resources in the extreme. The only way that humans should go to the moon or beyond is through robotics. Close to 100% of the money that would be used to place humans outside of the earth will be wasted on keeping humans safe and comfortable, and getting them there and back.

    Yeh, I know. Where is the entertainment value of robots, when you can enjoy new-age cowboys playing golf on some orbiting rock?

  • http://edromano.com Ed Romano

    Think about this a bit. I know it hurts, but think about it. We are close to rendering this little planet unlivable. Why, in God’s name, would we be thinking about spending $35,000,000,000 to have a few folks live on a planet where there isn’t even any air to breathe ?

  • RedRat

    Nothing is impossible as long as you throw enough money at it. Sure you “can” build a moon base and eventually staff it with his mythical 13,000 inhabitants. With enough money you can do all things.

    All that being said, we must ask why do we want to do this? Once that is understood, then we can decide if it is worth the cost. Frankly, I see the moon only as a potential astronomical observation point. However, that can be done with a a robotic telescope. Yes, it might require men going there and preparing a site and perhaps maintaining a scope. But, look, we do quite well with telescopes orbiting in space and they very well.

    Mining the moon does not makes sense since recovery of the materials mined back to Earth would be terribly expensive. Mining something as simple as aluminum, silicon, or even iron would render these materials more expensive than gold back here on Earth.

    It’s a pipe dream.

  • http://perceptualcosmology.com tamurphy

    Consider a scenario in which private enterprises like SpaceX and VirginGalactic continue to evolve, perhaps catering to the exotic ambitions of the super-rich. First suborbital, then Earth-orbital, then lunar cruises. How long before a lunar Las Vegas or Dubai mani-fests, sporting countless luxury condos. Perhaps one on the near-side, with a view of Mother Earth; and one on the farside, with an unobstructed view of the universe. Initially an indulgence of wealth, it will surely grow into a recreation enjoyed by the masses.

  • ES

    @47 Ed: Because we are close to rendering this little planet unlivable.

    We gotta start getting out of here sometime. Sitting around and daydreaming about it becoming cheaper and safer isn’t going to work. Trying, failing, learning, fixing, and trying again is the only way.

  • Joseph Lucas

    Paul Krugman recently quipped that Newt Gingrich is a stupid man’s idea of what a smart man sounds like.
    I concur
    KellyJoe

  • Mickey

    One way to reduce the costs of all of this would be to go back to the beginning. When the apollo program was developed, they didn’t have ridiculously high margin-of-safety requirements. They knew that going into space, and to the moon, was an extremely dangerous mission, and the risks were accepted. Sure, they did what they could to minimize most of those risks, but no matter what happens, there will always be risk beyond what some people consider ‘reasonable’. Look at the shuttle program – one damaged tile in the wrong place and the shuttle can’t come back without disintegrating. They knew that, and went anyway, and yes, some people died. Stop requiring these ridiculous safety standards and accept the risks. There are thousands of people i’m sure who would be more than willing to accept those risks for the chance to be involved in the historical missions that would result.

  • Tom Zwacker

    The CNSA shot down their own satellite: Read between the lines.
    7 Billion and counting. Soon we won’t have the resources to leave gravity.
    Incentivise space with prizes.
    Thomas Watson (IBM) hired salesmen during the Great Depression.
    Columbus didn’t fall off the edge.
    Can’t isn’t an AMERICAN belief
    First the Moon, then Mars, next we start mining the Asteroids
    The current occupant of the WH has us relying on the Russians, Money Bags has a Ground Hog mentality, the Irishman has the vision.
    Your choice

  • DF

    In regards to #52, everything I’ve read about the Apollo missions suggests the opposite. Apollo astronauts knew the risks, but with an essentially limitless budget, the equipment for Apollo was designed with very high safety standards.

    The space shuttle program didn’t have nearly as high a standard for safety, as evidenced by the catastrophic failures of the Challenger and Columbia orbiters.

  • Jeff

    China hasn’t even landed on the moon yet. They’ve just launched parts for a mini space station, but is dwarfed by the ISS. They have the money, but are decades behind, whereas America are technologically the best, but lacking in funding and political ambition.

    Which is why the answer is, and always has been, staring at us in the face. The religious might say this is God’s will of making us see sense. Intenational co-operation, for humanity’s advancement. If space exploration has a future, then all of humankind must pool resources together. Space is not about nations, it is a global – human – endeavour.

  • Chris Winter

    I think some clarification would be helpful here.

    First off, exploring space is a good thing to do. I think a case can be made that it is vital to do. A lot can be done with robots, but eventually humans must get out there as well. I have a question for who anyone thinks that robots can always do a better job: Why don’t we pull our people out of Antarctica and use robots exclusively down there?

    Second, building a base on the Moon is technically feasible, meaning that we have in hand, or could quickly develop, the technology to do it. Even Gingrich’s grandiose idea for a lunar base is technically feasible. But Gingrich’s proposal is not politically or economically feasible — unlike more modest plans like the one Clark S. Lindsey mentions above.

    Third, there are several reasons to set up a lunar base. There is still a great deal we don’t know scientifically about the Moon. Also, it could support other science research. The prime example is a radio observatory on the far side, shielded from Earth’s interference. (This could be robotic, with periodic visits by maintenance crews.) And the Moon is a good launch point for missions throughout the Solar System. To save costs, these could make use of lunar materials — including, quite probably, hydrogen and oxygen obtained from water at the poles to use as rocket fuel.

  • Just Pollard

    I think a point that many of you might be missing here is that Mr. Gingrich is attempting to capitalize on the public’s deep love of the human equation in space exploration. Whether or not it gains him any votes in the caucuses he has thrown this particular gauntlet because an astounding number of Americans would like to believe that this dream is one that belongs to NASA’s future and not only its past.

    The idea of a permanent presence for human beings on the moon is an important next step to colonizing the far reaches of our ‘cosmic backyard’ and in attempting to overcome the difficulties in establishing a base on Luna we will certainly advance our knowledge in spreading further out onto other planets in our solar system as well. Let us not forget that the spinoffs from the original Apollo program gave us innumerable advances in medical, engineering and computer sciences that probably account for better than a third of our current GDP. Unfortunately it is not the right time, economically at least, for such a grandiose undertaking and while there are endless possibilities to harvest the moon for humankind those technologies that would benefit most are still in their infancies and will not be able to properly monetize the advantages of a moon base for a decade or more. At this point in time, with such a large portion of the American electorate struggling to make ends meet, Newt’s plan is a noble, even vital endeavour whose time has not yet come.

    Still, many of us would like to believe we still had it in us to dare to attempt such an undertaking so let us not lull ourselves into believing that this grand venture belongs only to our children’s children.

    Although I agree with many people here that the colonization of the moon should not only be a singularly American venture it become obvious that we need to rekindle the flame of our national imagination in believing that we can regain and even surpass the accomplishments of previous generations. And surpass them we must if the human race is ever to leave the “surly bonds of Earth” and make our way out amongst the stars. It will take dedication and sacrifice and a lot of sweat but no than we can afford.

    The future does not belong to the Meek.

  • Ron

    What is missing here is discussion of the facts: that all countries who give up the high ground lose, economically and otherwise. In WWI, air power was fledgling and we played catchup. In WWII it was dominant, and we still played catchup. And in 1958 it was obvious that if we were not dominant, we would be dominated and overcome. We are at a crossroads again. And its obvious which choice we need to make, go back to the moon.

  • Bill Ries

    The real question as I see it is whether or not the Moon is the right place to go. I think it is, but then I’m not a JPL engineer. The best reason to go anywhere in my opinion is to get to Mars and then on to the moons of Jupiter and so on. So what is the best stepping stone? Moon or space station? The required energy for leaving earth would seem to justify a stepping stone. If it takes you 3/4 of a tank of gas to get to the end of your driveway, you better live by a gas station. It just seems to me the ability to produce fuel (assuming enough water) as well as staging supplies and assembling interplanitary vehicals (that don’t nessasarily need to be suited for lift-off from our plant as complete assemblies) makes the moon an ideal candidate (Newt, not so much). Yes, staging and assembly can be done on a station, but the moon’s fuel and iron potential, vast realestate and at least some of the gravity and (underground) cosmic shielding needed for long term residency more than make-up for overcoming it’s low gravity on your way to Mars. In Newt’s defence, he does seem to support science far more than most Rebublicans (even if he’s not very good at it).

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