Street Corner Soapbox: Shootin? for the Moon

Thursday, February 2nd, 2012 at 7:41 AM
Street Corner Soapbox: Shootin? for the Moon by Jay Stevens

Shoot for the moon. That's essentially the proposal Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich put forward in a debate last week. He said he wanted the U.S. to go "back to the moon permanently," and to build "a series of space stations and develop...commercial space." In a later stump speech, Gingrich vowed, "by the end of my second term, we will have the first permanent base on the moon, and it will be American."

Reaction to Gingrich's plan from the other candidates was swift and severe. Ron Paul suggested we send politicians to the moon. Rick Santorum accused Gingrich of playing "crass politics" with his space base rhetoric. Florida, after all, is home to much of NASA. Mitt Romney in Monday's debate said space exploration should be a "priority," and on Thursday said he would fire anyone who would suggest spending "a few hundred billion dollars to put a colony on the moon."

Pennsylvania Senator Pat Toomey even got into the mix, calling Gringrich's idea "grandiose" and anti-capitalist.

But is Gingrich's idea that ridiculous? Well, yes. It is.

For starters, building a station on the moon would be extremely expensive. Space journalist Alan Boyle's estimate of a $100-billion price tag seems optimistic, given NASA estimated in 2005 it would cost that much simply to send four astronauts to the moon for a seven-day jaunt. Sending the people, equipment, and material to the moon for an ambitious outer-space construction project would likely begin with a $100-billion price tag. And that's not including the cost to maintain the station, to keep it supplied with air, energy, and food.

Gingrich, of course, suggested that the private sector would gladly shoulder the burden of the cost and efficiently build the technology to get us to the moon, simply by waving a prize before them. Not so, said astrophysicist and space expert Neil DeGrasse Tyson in an MSNBC interview. "The frontier of space is expensive, dangerous, with unknown risk and unknown costs," said DeGrasse. "That is not ripe for capital markets to value." He pointed out that government typically has funded the initial steps into frontier, from Columbus to Lewis and Clark.

It's not clear why we would even need a permanent moon base. The scientific studies we would presumably do at a moon base could be done ten times over at the same cost by unmanned probes and satellites -- the Mars Rover program, for example, cost less than $1 billion.

Meanwhile, on Earth our civilization is based on a fossil fuel system that's finite. Oil, gas, and coal will eventually run out. Some experts estimate that we have about 100 years of coal left, 60 years of natural gas, and only about 50 years of oil. Much of it, though, requires extremely expensive, dangerous, and dirty techniques to extract -- like fracking, which threatens the viability of the public water supply.

And that's not even mentioning the onrushing disaster that climate change promises. All thirteen of the warmest years on record have occurred in the last 15 years. Unforeseeable consequences await if the trend continues, so much so that the Pentagon is spending millions planning for the national security threats climate change poses.

Really, shouldn't the question be, how can we build a permanent base on Earth?

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