Editor’s note – Bruce Dorminey, science journalist and author of Distant Wanderers: The search for Planets beyond the Solar System, is a lifelong proponent of lunar exploration.
Newt Gingrich certainly has his own political motives for suddenly deciding that now is the time to see that the decades-long dream of a lunar base finally makes it to fruition. But in addressing the issue of the U.S.’ future role in space, he arguably gave the most informed answer of anyone on stage at Thursday night’s Republican presidential debate in Jacksonville, Florida.
Mitt Romney’s measured response of first consulting with an interdisciplinary group of academics, captains of industry and the military, seemed to leave out NASA itself. But he was right in acknowledging that whatever the country’s next move in manned spaceflight might be, it should be tempered with some realistic rate of commercial and industrial return on America’s investment.
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Gingrich seems better versed in the hardware and specifics of what’s needed for a manned return to the moon. But Romney’s admonition to Gingrich about making politically-expedient campaign promises simply to placate Florida’s Spacecoast also rings true.
While it’s heartening that America’s future role in space is being discussed in such high profile public forums, the last thing the U.S. needs is for a presidential candidate to wantonly raise the issue of finally realizing the dream of a manned lunar base in a cynical attempt to lure Florida voters in the space industry.
But given the current level of private space entrepreneurship, Romney’s own admonition that a lunar base would likely cost hundreds of billions of dollars seems a bit out of touch.
While it’s true that the international space station turned into a $100 billion financial behemoth, Gingrich’s ideas about adapting existing Atlas V launcher technology for a return manned trip to the moon sounds interesting, if not altogether feasible.
And he struck the right note when he acknowledged the need for entrepreneurial involvement from the get-go. A public-private partnership, with emphasis on commercial technology spin-offs, might be the needed tonic to restart a serious lunar effort.
A few $50 million prizes for Moon-minded, space entrepreneurs would go a long way in jumpstarting innovation while bringing down costs.
This whole manned lunar colony issue is likely to be largely forgotten after next Tuesday’s Florida primary, but some version of it will come up again at this summer’s political conventions and again in the general election debates next Fall.
Let’s just hope that when it does, it prompts a national discussion on NASA’s role in the 21st century; and how in these financially-strapped times, the U.S. can mount a manned mission back to the Moon, to an asteroid or even on to Mars in a realistic way.
There also needs to be a serious rethink of how NASA selects and then funds its missions. As any science journalist can attest, too often whole NASA missions are scrapped only months before launch; or launches are rescheduled so many times that the space agency begins to lose credibility with its own proponents. Just who’s to ultimately blame for the current state of affairs is hard to pinpoint. But serious astronomers and space researchers can hardly be thrilled about how such projects are currently funded and implemented.
Unfortunately, the general public is largely out of the loop when it comes to understanding the vagaries of NASA funding. The public’s limited exposure to national space policy nowadays mostly comes in the form of politicians on the campaign stump. There, political candidates use the same hackneyed catchphrases about exploring our “final frontier” just a little too often to evoke any real goosebumps.
But if the U.S. is to maintain its national identity as the world’s premier technological power, it needs to make sure that space is part of that equation. The byproducts of its dot.com generation and social media gurus are a marvel. But a Twitter from a South Pole lunar base would inspire the world.