This wasn’t the sort of headline that attracted much media traffic given everything else that’s going on, but the President has directed NASA to send men back to the moon. At first glance, this probably seems like a winner with the public because we always tend to get excited about space exploration and a return to the moon has been discussed pretty much constantly since the last time we went there in 1972. It just never happened.
But as ABC news reports, Trump isn’t just talking about another mission to collect rocks, snap a few selfies with the American flag (though he did mention that part) and come home. He’s talking about setting up a permanent scientific base there.
As he signed a policy directive Monday intended to “refocus the space program on human exploration and discovery,” President Donald Trump instructed NASA to return American astronauts to the moon, alluded to an “eventual mission to Mars” and promised to “restore American leadership in space.”
Flanked by NASA leadership and three astronauts, including former Sen. Jack Schmitt, one of the most recent men to have walked on the moon, Trump described the directive, portraying space exploration as an encapsulation of America’s “pioneering spirit.”
“Today, the same spirit beckons us to begin new journeys of exploration and discovery, to lift our eyes all of the way up to the heavens and once again imagine the possibilities waiting in those big, beautiful stars if we dare to dream big and that’s what our country is doing again,” he said. “We’re dreaming big.”
Okay, we get it. This is of a piece with the entire Make America Great Again concept and leadership in the space race is arguably one of our finer moments in greatness. Walking on the moon and perhaps even establishing a base of business there fills the bill. And to be fair to Trump, he’s picking from a menu of items NASA proposed themselves this year and it wasn’t the worst choice on the list. That prize goes to their suggestion of an orbital space station in lunar orbit. I wrote about that idea back in May and found myself largely agreeing with an actual rocket scientist, Robert Zubrin, who called an orbiting moon station NASA’s worst idea ever.
We do not need a lunar-orbiting station to go to the Moon. We do not need such a station to go to Mars. We do not need it to go to near-Earth asteroids. We do not need it to go anywhere. Nor can we accomplish anything in such a station that we cannot do in the Earth-orbiting International Space Station, except to expose human subjects to irradiation – a form of medical research for which a number of Nazi doctors were hanged at Nuremberg.
If the goal is to build a Moon base, it should be built on the surface of the Moon. That is where the science is, that is where the shielding material is, and that is where the resources to make propellant and other useful things are to be found.
There were some other suggestions, but they primarily involved a focus on either going to Mars or seriously gearing up our space telescope game in the search for habitable planets around other stars. (Given my druthers, the search for a Second Earth should be at the top of our priorities.) A new moon shot was actually pretty far down the list.
So a base on the moon is a better idea than a base orbiting the moon. I agree with that in principle, but is that really where we should be investing our space dollars? Yes, there are some interesting resources on the moon such as Helium 3, which barely exists on the Earth and makes for an incredible fuel source. But there are massive logistical barriers to getting it back home in any economically viable fashion. What other science do we really need to be doing up there? It seems to me that our focus has been on Mars as the next step and should remain there. We can build ships and prepare for that journey in low Earth orbit just as well as we could on the moon. Possibly better and more safely.
Also, how are we going to pay for this? Certain groups in NASA are still big fans of returning to the moon, but they admit that it would require an increase in the NASA budget adding up to the billions. The last proposal for the 2018 NASA budget from the White House called for half a billion in cuts, not an increase. Whether we’re going to the Moon or to Mars, we’re not doing it on the cheap. The eggheads in charge their know how much money they need for either of these mammoth projects and we’ve seen no indication that the funds will be available.