Sunday, January 29, 2012

One Of These Days, Alice...

Recently, Newt Gingrich caused a stir in the run-up to the Florida GOP primary by suggesting that, by 2020, a Gingrich Administration would set up a permanent base on the Moon. Leaving aside the question of whether or not it's a good idea ... Actually, never mind, that's a good discussion to have. There are several good reasons why we want to do that, eventually. But there are several equally good reasons that there's just no way in Hell we're going to get there from here by 2020.

One reason is radio astronomy. The biggest problem with radio astronomy is interference. We use radio for everything. We use it to talk to each other, to share pictures and music, to share information. We use it to find out how far airplanes are from one another, and to keep passenger airplanes from running into mountains. Our power lines leak radio frequency energy, even though we'd really rather they didn't. All of this makes radio astronomy, the science of exploring the universe by analyzing the radio frequency radiation coming at us from deep space, a very tricky discipline indeed. Wouldn't it be nice, if you could put a radio telescope somewhere that was shielded from all of Earth's radio frequency output?

Another reason is clean energy, albeit indirectly. If you were to put farms of solar power panels in geosynchronous orbit, you could beam clean energy down from space 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Building them is a fairly tall order, and it would be cheaper to haul the building materials up from the Moon than it would be to haul them up from the Earth.

You're free to disagree with me on this, of course, but I'm convinced that an outpost on the Moon is a good idea for our long-term future, not just as a nation but as a species. But it's vitally important that we do it right. And there's just no way to do it right in only nine or ten years. Let's make a quick outline of what needs to be done in order to get there from here.

First, you need a mature transportation infrastructure. The longest pole in this tent is efficient, reusable transportation to and from low Earth orbit for both crew and cargo. You're going to be moving a lot of cargo both up and down, so you need to be able to do it cheaply, and on a reliable, dependable schedule. You also need to be able to develop the technology for in-space refueling, so that you can store fuel and supplies at an orbital supply depot. You'd also like to have really efficient engines for space propulsion, so that you can be as miserly with that fuel as possible. Finally, you will need to develop closed-loop life support, so that your base can be as self-sufficient as possible. Now, where have we heard this before? (Hold on to that thought. We'll come back to it later.)

Given all of that, here's how you'd need to proceed:

(1) Stockpile some fuel and supplies in low Earth orbit.
(2) At the same time, haul up some parts, and assemble a couple of cislunar freighters.
(3) Load the freighters with fuel, supplies, and parts.
(4) Once they arrive in Lunar orbit, they will assemble a second fuel and supply depot.
(5) Once back in Earth orbit, load the freighters with fuel, supplies, parts, and a couple of lunar landers.
(6) Once back in Lunar orbit, the landers will take the parts down to the surface, and begin construction.

This way, you have a sustainable supply chain to keep the project going for as long as you need to. And there's no way to do this in only ten years. Oh sure, if we already had all of the enabling technologies, we could make it happen. But we don't. And therein lies the problem. Some of us learned the wrong lessons from Project Apollo.

Project Apollo left us with an awesome legacy. Six flags and twelve sets of footprints stand in eternal testimony to what we can do as a nation when we plant our feet, fix our eyes on the ball, and swing for the fences. But it also leaves a false impression that we can do anything -- literally anything -- with only nine years' notice. And that's not necessarily true.

We have a lot of hard work to do before we're ready to undertake the challenge of building a permanent outpost on the Moon. We've barely begun that work. If we undertake the "Flexible Path" option outlined in 2009's Augustine Commission report, we will have done the lion's share of the preparation by 2020. Then, and only then, can we realistically undertake the task.

Anyone who tells you different is either lying, crazy, or just delusional. Although in Gingrich's case, it may well be all of the above.

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