January 27, 2012
Newt Gingrich, I don't deride you for thinking big about our space program and regaining America's interest in it and other science. I'd say I like our politicians talking about science and exploration more.
However, your pledge of establishing a permanent moon base by the end of your second term is just a wee bit out of touch with what could really happen.
In a sense of "can we literally do this?" I think our nation could. But a lot of challenges instantly come to mind that really throw a monkey wrench into this idea.
First of all, the United States doesn't even have a rocket right now that we know could safely take one person to the moon. NASA is developing one based on what it learned from the Apollo and space shuttle programs, but it takes time to get things right.
We are at the time of year when all three of NASA's fatal tragedies -- Apollo I on Jan. 27, 1967, Challenger on Jan. 28, 1986, and Columbia on Feb. 1, 2003 -- occurred. We cannot forget how dangerous space is to explore and that people have given their lives to do so.
In his speech, Gingrich mentioned the airplane industry and how it grew. I get where he's coming from, but traveling from Atlanta to New York is completely different from traveling from Cape Kennedy to the moon.
With flight in the atmosphere, you just need to maintain cabin pressure, go a couple hundred miles per hour with a well-designed craft to break gravity's hold, and carry enough fuel to last you for a few hours.
Space flight adds immense challenges. The space shuttle literally could not even get to the moon. The orbiters are named so because they were designed to orbit Earth. NASA wasn't sure it would have enough fuel to repair the Hubble telescope about 300 miles above Earth. The new rocket system being designed will overcome that, but again it's still not complete.
But a moon base does not just provide challenges. It provides danger. Aside from the lack of air in space, once you leave Earth's orbit you also leave the protection of Earth's magnetic field. The sun just spat out a coronal mass ejection this week, a phenomenon that sends a lot of protons our way. The planet's magnetic field absorbs them and gives us the light show of an aurora.
But on the moon, you have no protection. As far as I know the recent CME wouldn't have provided lethal doses of radiation to moon habitants, but a similar situation between Apollo missions did.
"Sickening solar flares" from NASA Science News: http://science.nasa.gov/science-news/science-at-nasa/2005/27jan_solarflares/
The CMEs in 1972 could have killed anyone on the moon, especially someone in just a space suit and not inside a shelter.
All those dangers aside, I must bring up the reason this will not happen: money.
Congress and the president are working out ways to grow our economy, reduce spending and balance the budget. The president made some good cases in Tuesday's State of the Union for ways to spend a little money to spur growth, which means more tax returns. The hope is you get someone off unemployment and add some more tax revenue from a worker.
It doesn't work that way with space exploration. Tourism would obviously bring income to any public or private outfit that ran space flights. But the numbers don't add up. The space shuttle's Endeavour orbiter, built to replace Challenger, cost $1.7 billion. Space shuttle missions cost an average of $450 million. NASA's current annual budget is just south of $20 billion, about half a percent of our government's annual budget.
During the space race, NASA's budget approached 3.5 percent of the government's budget. Let's pretend that the same rate would give NASA the resources to set up a lunar base by 2020. How exactly does $140 billion for NASA fit in to Gingrich's plans to cut federal spending, lower taxes and balance the budget?
One can only assume that these industries Gingrich is mentioning are part of a plan for private companies to do the bulk of this work. Apple Inc., one of the biggest companies in the world, is valued at $415 billion. It sells a lot of devices and media that hundreds of millions of people buy for prices of up to a couple thousand bucks for some of its top computers. But most buy $1.29 songs, $200 iPhones, $500 iPads and $1,200 computers.
No company on this planet -- or any other we know of for that matter -- would make near the investment I already mentioned on some completely new industry with so much unknown, challenges and sheer danger involved. It takes a big government initiative to get big things done -- governments fund space programs, the Department of Defense gave birth to the Internet.
So none of this adds up. At all. Not a bit.
Newt Gingrich visited our office last year. If he were to visit again, I'd love to ask him about his ideas about space exploration because I do think it's important to do more. But the lack of a realistic vision and plan on this make this seem less like John F. Kennedy's "we choose to go to the moon" and more like a candidate trying to gain support in an area with a lot of laid-off NASA workers.
Let's think big, but maybe we should check the numbers first.
Michael Buckelew is a digital content coordinator for SCNI, parent company of the Gwinnett Daily Post.