Going to the Moon…Or Not

Is that what it will take for NASA to get its mojo back? Or are there better ways to spend its money?

Who is headed to the Moon next?
Who is headed to the Moon next? Image courtesy of Flickr user Arjan Almekinders

In a week where a series of solar storms created spectacular aurora borealis light shows and two Canadian teenagers launched a Lego astronaut in a homemade balloon 80,000 feet into the atmosphere, the space story that grabbed the most media attention in the U.S. turned out to be Newt Gingrich’s pledge to establish a colony on the moon by 2020.

He promised that, if he’s elected president, not only would America settle the lunar surface before China, but als0 that that community on the moon could become the first U.S. state in space.

Great stump speech stuff, particularly in a region hurt by the shutdown last year of the space shuttle program, but it isn’t very likely. It’s not so much the technology, it’s the money. As Phil Plait points out at Discover Magazine, the cost of establishing even a tiny, four-person base has been estimated at $35 billion, plus at least another $7 billion a year to keep it running. Imagine Congress, circa 2012, picking up that tab. In fairness to Gingrich, he suggested that private companies, with NASA prize money as an incentive, would cover most of the cost, but that would require them to take on enormous financial risk with no guarantee of a payoff.

So where does that leave us?  Is this NASA’s Dark Ages?  Should we just cede the moon to China now?

China’s all in

China would seem to have the inside track on that moon base.  Last November it carried out the first docking of two of its unmanned spacecraft, then, at the end of 2011, announced a five-year plan that includes dramatically expanding its satellite network, building a space lab and collecting lunar samples, with the ultimate goal of launching its own space station and a manned mission to the moon. The Chinese government, with the opportunity to show in a very public way that it’s now a world leader in science and technology, has made it clear that funding will not be an issue.

If the U.S. is to get back to the moon first, it may have to be as part of an international team. Earlier this month, the Russian news agency RIA Novosti reported that Russian space officials have started talking to their counterparts at NASA and the European Space Agency about building a moon base. There’s always the chance the Russians will try to go it alone, although a string of recent failures or problems doesn’t bode well–including the embarassment of an expensive probe meant to explore a Martian moon instead stalling in Earth orbit and plunging into the Pacific two weeks ago.

And what of the private companies on which Gingrich would bank so heavily to colonize the moon? That’s way out of their league. That said, this should be a pivotal year for business in space. Space Exploration Technologies, or SpaceX, the California outfit headed by PayPal co-founder Elon Musk, will launch the first private spaceship to dock with the International Space Station, although that unmanned mission, scheduled for early February, was just pushed back to late March because the rocket needs more work.

Then there’s Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic, which hopes to have its space tourism business up and running by the end of the year. Remember when it used to cost $30 million for a non-astronaut to ride aboard Russia’s Soyuz spaceship? No more. Soon you’ll  be able to take off from Spaceport America in New Mexico, rise to 50,000 feet while attached to a plane, get released into sub-orbital space and enjoy your five minutes of weightlessness.  All for the low, low price of $200,000.

So what’s up with NASA?

As for NASA, yes, its glory days as defined by astronauts soaring into space are fading for now. But let’s forget about the moon base thing for a minute. When it comes to pure science and deep space exploration, NASA still delivers. Just last Thursday, the agency announced that its Kepler Space Telescope had discovered 11 new solar systems. (That’s solar systems, not planets.) The James Webb Space Telescope, Hubble’s successor which survived attempts last year to take away its funding, will, after it launches in 2018, be able to look back in time to the first galaxies ever formed.

On Mars, Opportunity, one of NASA’s two rovers there, is still functioning, eight years after it landed. That’s already 30 times longer than it was supposed to last. And come early August, another Mars rover, Curiosity, is scheduled to arrive and start looking for signs of life.

Still, space travel has lost much of its luster, and that loss has even rippled through science fiction writing. Author and physics professor Gregory Benford digs into this in an essay in the latest issue of Reason magazine, where he notes that ”Congress came to see NASA primarily as a jobs program, not an exploratory agency.” The political and economic realities of exploring our solar system, says Benford, have sobered sci-fi writers, and these days they’re more likely to set stories way in the future and on worlds far beyond any trip for which we could imagine a budget.

A little more space

Here’s other recent space news:

  • Dippin’ dots again?: Researchers are looking for volunteers to live in a simulated Mars habitat on barren lava fields in Hawaii. They’re trying to figure out what kind of menu would work for astronauts on the long, long six-month trip to Mars.
  • Mars attacks: Scientists have determined that a meteorite that fell in Morroco last year actually originated on Mars.
  • Are we there yet?: A NASA spacecraft that left Earth in 2006 is now two-thirds of the way to its final destination of Pluto. That’s right, it will take nine years
  • Gone fission: The conventional means of powering rockets–chemical combustion–isn’t an option for really long-distance space travel. Now a new study is underway to see if nuclear fission can be an alternative.
  • Surely you jest: After studying photos of the surface of Venus, a Russian scientist says he may have seen signs of life in one of our solar system’s more hostile environments.

Video Bonus: Now these guys knew how to dress for moon vacation. A little space travel, old school.

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