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.
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.
Seth Shostak is Senior Astronomer at the SETI Institute in California, and the host of the weekly radio show and podcast, “Big Picture Science.”
The Moon is a ball of left-over debris from a cosmic collision that took place more than four billion years ago. A Mars-sized asteroid—one of the countless planetesimals that were frantically churning our solar system into existence—hit the infant Earth, bequeathing it a very large, natural satellite.
OK, that’s a bit of modestly engaging astrophysics. But some scientists think there’s a biological angle here. Namely, that elaborate terrestrial life might never have appeared if that asteroid had arrived a few hours earlier, and sailed silently by. Put another way, if every night were moonless, you wouldn’t be around to notice the lack of a moon.
But is that true? Did our cratered companion really make our existence possible?