Gingrich’s Moon Base Vision

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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.”

Comments
19
loki
February 1, 2012 at 01:05

And once China puts a man on the moon and plants their flag they will lay claim to it and claim that as per a their thousand year old maps,the moon belong to them in the first place

Timothy Birdnow
January 30, 2012 at 18:06

Helium 3 is reason enough to go. The Russians and Chinese both want to get their hands on the moon’s supply. It would pay back the costs of building the base in the end.

And NASA has done a good deal of the intellectual legwork. We really are at the point of just building the hardware and doing it.

Oh, and bringing on international partners means you make the thing unviable; international partners turned the space station Freedom into the boondoggle that is the ISS. It never has had any use because too many cooks spoil the broth. And the U.S. STILL carries the lion’s share of the cost.

BK Raju
January 30, 2012 at 15:31

Of course you are right. It is likely that almost nobody has actually read or listened to Newt’s proposal in detail, although he explained it in the last debate (for whoever listened in on that one). Yes, his proposal is built on incentives for commercial exploration, and yes, based on that the whole premise of this article above is incorrect.

The more important kind of people to ask about whether this is feasible would need to be business leaders or entrepreneurs, not scientists.

BK Raju
January 30, 2012 at 15:22

If we look at purchasing power parity (PPP) numbers, China is already just a tad above 50% there in reaching the US, without external wars and costly stationing of troops overseas. So, much closer than most people want to make us believe. – Still, valid point in principle. Apply a few percent of savings to the program, or redirect space-related DOD budget to that goal, and the money won’t be the issue.

Cyrus14
January 29, 2012 at 16:11

Right and the Chinese would not dare steal the technologies that the west has. Rather it will safeguard it and “develop” the technology and “improve” it.

Reason
January 29, 2012 at 03:10

@JC

What a great idea – cus the CCP certainly isn’t greed based and is the most open and transparent organization on the planet.

I think you’ve really hit on something here, mate

Maybe the CCP could take over all worthwhile science projects globally seeing as they are such a selfless and tireless organization, that only works at improving humanity and the global environment.

This is genius JC

John Chan
January 28, 2012 at 16:58

USA cannot repeat the feat of landing the moon again because its political and economic systems which are greed based systems, maximize profit is the aim, exploring the moon and all other science and technology are the process to maximise profits. Even USA has landed people on the moon before, it does not mean USA can do it cheaper again. If USA tries to landing people on moon again, it merely means that the USA taxpayers write a blank cheque to the MIC for the next three decades.

The only way USA and Westpac to land man on the moon and explore space beyond is to ask the Chinese to manage the programs, and they provide the support of science and technology.

Michael Listner
January 28, 2012 at 13:27

Agreed. While the legal foundation for Gingrich’s plan is flawed, at the very least he has a vision. Unfortunately, pundits, Gingrich’s political opponents and even some notable names in the space law and policy circles saw this as an opportunity to mock the former Speaker.

Predictably, Romney’s speech on space policy was lacking. I wonder what would what the reaction to JFK’s challenge would be if he gave it today?

Lucas W
January 28, 2012 at 06:21

Agreed. Space X’s Falcon 9 rocket is the way to get back to the moon. If they were given some more money/incentives to get the Falcon 9 Heavy flying sooner, surely we could be back on the moon within a decade. Hopefully staying in a Bigelow type habitat on the surface but if not, an ISS type module in lunar orbit would be a good start.

Eric S
January 27, 2012 at 23:59

Once we see China landing on the moon, and starting to lay claim all over the place, sentiment will change. SHARPLY. Believe me.

Ilpalazzo
January 27, 2012 at 23:23

All we need to do is tell the Middle East that if they’d stop bombing the world, soon they can have their own colony on a foreign planet to jihad all day long (and those might be 48 hour days, so they can get a lot more blown up!)

See – it’s win-win when people work together instead of needlessly slaughtering each other!

Blair Mulholland
January 27, 2012 at 22:46

People say it would suck up a lot of money, but this may not be the case. I think people assume that it would require the same amount of effort and dollars as it would last time, but I don’t see why. We’ve ALREADY been to the moon, we ALREADY know how to do it. There would be no astronomical (so to speak) research and development costs whereby NASA spends billions of dollars on technology which everybody who has an iPhone, nay a SHUFFLE, now owns. And we’ve had forty years of technological advances since.

I also don’t see why NASA couldn’t partner with someone like Virgin to develop this.

Unless they really did film the moon landings in Area 51, I don’t see why we can’t go to the moon again, and have people there permanently, as we already do in a space station orbiting the Earth.

Larry J
January 27, 2012 at 22:22

If your working assumption is that the project would be yet another massive NASA program, then no, it couldn’t be done in 10 years. NASA would spend billions on preparing briefings and white papers before they cut the first piece of metal.

Now, if your assumption is that other approaches would be taken, such as using existing commercial launch vehicles instead of spending billions on white elephants like the SLS, then there is a chance it could happen and for a tiny fraction of what NASA would spend. Companies like Bigelow and SpaceX are examples of a better, more cost effective and timely approach to developing space systems.

inspectorudy
January 27, 2012 at 22:12

Obviously you didn’t listen to Newt’s proposal very carefully. He said that the US would offer big prize money like the Lindbergh prize for crossing the Atlantic ocean. If mining rights or mineral royalties were part of a prize one can only imagine how much money would be forth coming. I guess you people that see everything as doom and gloom will be real happy with Obama or Paul where one spends us into the poor house while the other one puts us into a deep depression with his one trillion dollar cuts in his first year. People need hope in times like this and if you want someone to tell you to stop your stupid dreaming then Romney and Santorum are the ones. Just because you dream it doesn’t mean that it will happen but you have to offer the vision.

Sravan aka John Chan
January 27, 2012 at 17:35

lackey moon!

Leonard R.
January 27, 2012 at 00:22

Make it the 53rd state after Philippines & Myanmar.

fng
January 26, 2012 at 23:52

I’m wondering where is Newt going to get the money for this expensive enterprise when the US is soo heavily in dept?

The_Observer
January 26, 2012 at 22:02

Agreed. And what people still don’t realize is that, even in this period of reduced space expenditure, the USA spends far more on the military than the next nine or ten nations do combined.

Dr. Rice
January 26, 2012 at 21:14

If we put as much effort into developing our capacity for war towards space exploration, colonialization, and commericalization we would already have gotten to the moon.

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