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Thursday, December 15, 2011
Outer Space ... Politics ...

So, Newt Gingrich is drawing fire for his vision of setting up a lunar base, presumably sometime during the 8 years that he would be President. This lunar base would mine some stuff on the moon for use here on earth (i.e., before 2020). Well, I give Mr. Gingrich credit for thinking big, thinking really high tech. But something about the reality of science, technology and economics often seems to get in the way of those “high frontier” dreams about manned space exploration. Right now, the USA is pretty much out of that business. We just can’t afford it at the moment, and the economy won’t be booming again for quite some time. That mountain of debt that we and the Europeans face won’t go away any time soon.

But if things do somehow turn around in the next 5 years, it would not be impossible for the USA to work toward a return to the moon, with the eventual goal of setting up some sort of small colony for longer-term habitation. Actually, this will probably come off as an international partnership between China, India, Russia and us, assuming that we can all learn to get along well enough to pull off something so complex.

As such, Newt’s dream of a lunar colony really isn’t any more radical than G W Bush’s goal of returning to the moon by the third decade of the new century. It’s just that our financial ability to do this seems to have deteriorated in the interim.

I suppose that Newt would say that the mining aspect will make the whole venture worth the huge long-term investment. Well . . . maybe eventually, but we could be talking 40 or 50 years until it would be economically feasible and justifiable to fling moon rocks back to earth. I did a quick search regarding the cost per pound to transport something from earth to the moon’s surface, and the estimates range from $50,000 to $250,000. There isn’t much on the moon that would be worth $50,000 per pound here on earth. Some people talk about helium 3 on the lunar surface being a possible source of fuel for nuclear fusion reactors; but those could still be 20 years or more away, and at present, we really don’t know if a helium 3 fusion reaction could work for continual power generation. And the helium 3 concentrations in lunar soil are low (you would need about 350,000 tons of moon rock for 25 tons of helium 3, enough to power the USA for one year). So we’d probably have to set up an industrial refinery on the airless moon surface. Again, the technology to do that could be 40 or 50 years away.

Sure, we will someday have better technologies for shooting stuff from moon to earth, including huge magnetic rail guns on the lunar surface to fling rocks towards the earth, with orbital space barges to collect the stuff and ferry it down thru the earth’s atmosphere (which would be the most costly phase of the journey, given the need to survive the heat and pressure of re-entry – remember that most meteors don’t survive that).

But as to putting such a system in place in 8 years . . . I’ve lived long enough to know that 8 years goes by too quickly. It’s 2011 and we’re still driving basically the same kinds of cars as in 2003 (OK, a few more hybrids and electric cars, but still a long way before that becomes standard; the Chevy Volt is still not ready for prime time). We’re still using similar computers (with a few developments like the I-pad), and the cell phone is morphing into the smart phone – i.e., a cell phone with a little computer attached. Our medicines are a little bit better, but we still have a long way to go with basics like cancer, HIV and all sorts of viral and autoimmune diseases, which have been around for a long time.

I well remember Ronald Reagan’s 1980’s dream of a “star wars” system of missile defense based on lasers and magnetic guns and such. Just because a President dreams about a great technology leap doesn’t make it happen (perhaps JFK just got lucky with his moon dream). It’s been 30 years since Reagan started the US on a program to establish a high-tech anti-missile system, and the best that we have today is still the old fashioned earth-based solid-fuel rocket. I.e., just what we had in 1965 with the proposed Nike Zeus and Nike X programs.

Given better radar, computers, sensors and data transmission, the new Standard 3 anti-missiles are probably much more effective in actually stopping a missile warhead coming down from space at supersonic speeds than the old Nike’s would have been. (The only chance they had was to pop off a nuke within a few miles of the enemy warhead; today’s anti-missiles try for a direct hit without nukes.) But we’re still a long way off from having lasers and “space rods” launched by nuclear satellites that could vaporize an Iranian or North Korean ICBM heading for London or Honolulu (or maybe even NY or LA).

So as to Newt’s dream of mining the moon within the lifetime of anyone over the age of 30, well . . . I think there are a whole lot more practical and useful (if less exciting) things we can do with what remains of our space exploration budget for the time being . . . like getting the James Webb space telescope up by 2018. The Webb is the next-generation space observatory meant to replace and outdo the Hubble, and it was almost canceled recently in all of the federal cost-cutting euphoria. Reagan wasted a lot of taxpayer money chasing a high-tech military dream, and Newt would do the same if he tried to rush a lunar colony program. I don’t think that Newt Gingrich is really living on Planet Earth in late 2011. And I really hope that he won’t be living in the White House in early 2013.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 7:20 pm      

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