In January 2004, President Bush committed the U.S. to returning to the moon by 2020. No human has set foot on our celestial satellite for 30 years, but many space enthusiasts believe the moon should be our staging post for journeys to Mars, a destination Bush has also made a NASA priority. Space wayfarers dream of establishing a permanent colony on the moon and of mining the lunar surface for materials to build the local infrastructure and to provide power for long-ranging spacecraft. Others imagine sifting through the lunar dust for helium 3 to fuel fusion power stations here on Earth, or placing giant telescopes on the far side to scan the cosmos for clues about the Big Bang. The vision is mighty, but so are the barriers. During the last three decades, the furthest man has ventured into space is 386 miles, about the distance from Washington, D.C., to Boston. Though the Starship Enterprise effortlessly cruises the galactic byways, in real life getting to the moon is really, really hard. Building there will be even tougher. Below are eight good reasons we should think seriously before indulging our Seleneum dreams:
1. Cost. Though no official figures have been given, knowledgeable pundits put a return to the moon at around $100 billion. But NASA’s track record on fiscal restraint invokes skepticism even among hardcore fans. Arizona Senator John McCain has quipped that the agency’s acronym stands for “never a straight answer.” In 1984, when Ronald Reagan announced that we would build a space station to rival the USSR’s Mir, the estimated price tag was $8 billion. By the time the International Space Station (ISS) is finished in 2007, the bill will stand at over $100 billion, despite being scaled down in size and scope. By comparison, the USSR built Mir for $4.3 billion and its operating costs were just 3 percent of the ISS. Prudence suggests that if we do go back to the moon we should recruit the Russians as partners.
2. There Is No Atmosphere. With just one-eightieth of the Earth’s mass, the moon has commensurately lower gravity, which is great if you want to play trampoline but lousy if you need to breathe, not to mention work. Too gravitationally weak to hold an atmosphere, the moon’s face is a vacuum, so moon colonists will have to make their own air.
3. Radiation. The lack of an atmosphere means the lunar surface is bombarded by powerful radiation from cosmic rays. No human could ever spend more than a few months on the moon during his or her entire life. It will be a settlement of continual newbies.
4. Lack of Water. Again, due to low gravity and no atmosphere most water long ago evaporated into outer space. Some scientists believe there may still be pockets of ice hidden deep in shadows around lunar mountains, but moon colonists should be planning to bring or make their own H2O.
5. The Gravity Well. Proponents of space travel, including President Bush, tout the moon’s low gravity as a boon for launching crafts to other planets — lunar escape velocity can be achieved for just 1/22nd of the energy required to send a vehicle from Earth. But before you can launch a craft from the moon you have to get it there. Either all the parts have to be shipped from Earth, annihilating any energy saving, or you have to make components on the moon itself from resources found naturally there — a dim prospect considering the barren nature of the lunar terrain.
6. Lack of Accessible Resources. Space enthusiasts are increasingly championing In-Situ Resource Utilization — to wit, mining and processing lunar materials. Specifically, they are interested in using lunar regolith, the fine dust covering the moon’s surface, as a construction material. Unfortunately, moon dust is akin to a glassy volcanic ash — to do anything with this stuff we’ll have to radically reinvent the building code. But who knows what wealth lies beneath the lunar surface? In his 2004 speech, Bush enthused about the moon’s untapped and unknown mineral potential: “We may discover resources . . . that will boggle the imagination,” he declared. In practice most mining relies on huge quantities of water for separating different mineral components. In the absence of H2O, mining on the moon is going to require a major technological revolution.
7. The Myth of Helium 3. Of all the moon’s advantages, none is touted more than its high concentration of helium 3, which is an ideal fuel for nuclear fusion reactors. A helium 3 reactor would make an excellent propulsive source for a Mars-bound spacecraft, but there is only an estimated 10 kilograms on Earth. On the moon there’s tons of the stuff, so why not mine it in-situ? Proponents suggest that we could use helium 3 not just for spacecraft but also to fuel terrestrial power stations. The problem is that in order to get one pound of helium 3 you have to sift through 200 million pounds of moon dust. If you are willing to pay for that kind of infrastructure we’d be far better off developing solar-power technology. Like helium 3 (which also comes from the sun), there’s enough sunlight to power all of humanity’s needs and it’s freely available here on Earth.
8. The Moondoggle Factor. When President Bush launched his moon-Mars vision, he justified the endeavor by claiming that “the fascination generated by further [space] exploration will inspire our young people to study math and science and engineering to create a new generation of innovators and pioneers.” Is the moon really that inspiring? NASA’s annual budget ($16 billion) is already three times that of the National Science Foundation, and American children’s science proficiency continues to slide. In 2005 Congress actually cut the NSF’s budget and refused to fund another round of national Science and Technology Centers because, in this age of burgeoning budget deficits, the nation supposedly can’t afford them. If we really want to inspire kids to study math and science, investing in these areas directly would make a whole lot more sense than sending spam in a can to mine ash in a waterless vacuum.