While the United States has been retiring the last of its Space Shuttle fleet (leaving it dependent on Russia to get its astronauts into orbit), China has been becoming increasingly bold in its stellar endeavors. The country launched its first unmanned lunar orbiter, Chang'e-1, in 2007, the same year as its notorious satellite killing. In 2011, it undertook its first unmanned docking in space.
In last year’s State of the Union address, U.S. President Barack Obama referred to a new “Sputnik Moment,” a reference to the Soviet Union’s launch of the Sputnik satellite in 1957, and the sense back then that the United States was falling behind its rival. With China having announced plans for a manned lunar mission in 2017, does America again risk losing its edge?
Not if candidate for the Republican presidential nomination Newt Gingrich can help it. Speaking yesterday in Florida, which votes this weekend in the next round of the Republican primary, Gingrich said that if elected, the U.S. would have a base on the moon by the end of his second term.
“We want Americans to think boldly about the future,” he reportedly told a rally. “We will have commercial near-Earth activities that include science, tourism and manufacturing, because it’s 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.”
This gives him less than 10 years. Is it likely – or even possible? No, and maybe, at least according to two leading space analysts I heard from today.
“Gingrich’s speech to a group of not just space enthusiasts, but space workers, on the Florida space coast is reminiscent of a similar speech made there by George W. Bush in 2004 regarding the Vision for Space Exploration,” Joan Johnson-Freese, a professor of national security affairs and space specialist at the U.S. Naval War College, told me.“That vision was then never mentioned again by the president, and starved to death financially when stacked up against other priorities. It was actually a political fantasy.”
“Now, in a time of severe economic restraint – where critical parts of the budget are being cut – it’s unlikely that the American public will be willing to pony-up the required amount to repeat a victory for the American can-do spirit already won in 1969.”
So, how much money would NASA need to pursue such a project? According to James Clay Moltz, an associate professor at the Naval Post Graduate School and author of The Politics of Space Security, Gingrich's vision would likely require at least a $10 billion increase in NASA spending per year to accomplish a base for short astronaut visits within just eight years. The problem, he says, is that no such project has proven politically feasible in Washington, at least since the Apollo program.
“Notably, Gingrich's idea for a ‘U.S. base’ also seems to rule out any possible international cost-sharing, something even President Bush's proposal had included,” Moltz told me. “Given these problems, it seems that Gingrich's proposal, realistically, is aimed mostly at votes in Florida.”
The other, related, question is whether this kind of base is even desirable.
“In my own view, I believe that a carefully constructed international plan for an initial robotic facility on the Moon and an eventual manned base makes more sense,” Moltz said. “But it will take considerable planning and coordination, as well as input from other countries.”
“Some groundwork for such cooperation exists in the International Space Station model and in the context of the International Lunar Network, as well as initial international meetings conducted by the Bush administration for the VSE. But the project will likely have to include core segments from foreign sources, probably including China and India, which will require a sustained political engagement on a scale exceeding that of the International Space Station,” he added.
Regardless, none of this will come cheap. And nor should it, Johnson-Freese argues. “Space isn’t something we can or should do ‘on the cheap.’ Instead, we ought to be focusing on ‘where next’ via the Space Launch System, and working with the aerospace industry for long term space development,” she said.
“Any candidate who talks about space expeditions, with deadlines, in this economic climate is engaging in – in my opinion, and not unexpectedly in an election year – political theater.”