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03 Feb 2012 00:00
In the latest tell-people-what-they-want-to-hear speech on the endless election circuit, Republican presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich made a remarkable promise: he wants a moon base. Well, don’t we all?
Ahead of this week’s primary, Newt ‘grandiose is my middle name” Gingrich told an audience on Florida’s space coast that, by the end of his second term in the Oval Office, the US would have a permanent base on the moon—used for science, tourism and manufacturing.
These are welcomed words for a community that saw the last flight of the space shuttle from the Kennedy Space Center in July last year.
There was no indication of how anyone might pay for such an enterprise, but, according to website Spaceflight Now, Gingrich suggested setting aside 10% of Nasa’s budget for prizes aimed at the commercial space sector. Gingrich also proposed further space travel using a ‘continuous propulsion system” that could take astronoauts to Mars.
It might all sound far-fetched, but bear in mind that Gingrich is not the first Republican in recent times to propose a gargantuan new space dream for the US. In 2004 then-president George Bush called for a return to the moon, followed by Mars expeditions.
Nasa duly came up with the Constellation programme, a plan composed of a new exploration vehicle called Orion, shaped like the Apollo space capsules last used in 1972 but three times larger, which could replace the space shuttle.
Two years later the space agency unveiled plans to build a permanent moon base within 20 years that could be used as a launch site for future missions to Mars. There are good scientific reasons for such a base: it could, among other things, measure cosmic rays, hunt for exotic sub-atomic particles in space and look for asteroids on a collision course with Earth.
A moon base could also be used as a platform for monitoring the Earth’s oceans and ice caps.
Nasa’s plan was that, by 2020, four-person crews would make week-long trips during which power supplies, rovers and living quarters would be built on the lunar surface. In the mid-2020s, when the base was fully built, people would stay for up to six months at a time to prepare for longer journeys to Mars.
By the end of the decade pressurised roving vehicles could take people on long exploratory trips across the lunar surface.
Bush never matched his words with cash, however. Over the years that the Constellation programme was being designed and discussed, Nasa’s budget did not increase in any commensurate way to develop the required technology.
At the height of the Apollo programme in the 1960s, the budget rose to 3.45% of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP)—reflecting the sort of funding needed to get major human spaceflight projects going in short amounts of time.
After 1975 Nasa’s budget dropped below 1% of US GDP and the space agency entered what many might call its wilderness years. That figure has remained below 1% ever since and, in the past decade, has hovered at about 0.5% of GDP.
The Constellation programme came to an end in 2010 when President Barack Obama cancelled its funding. With the retirement of the space shuttle last year, the lack of priority for human spaceflight left Nasa—and particularly the space coast around Brevard County in Florida—despondent.
Given that background, any interest from presidential candidates in resurrecting the US’s grand space ambitions will no doubt be welcome to Floridians and space fans alike.
Technology will not be the problem when it comes to getting Gingrich’s—or even Bush’s—moon base built. With the right investment, US scientists and engineers could easily get the job done.
The major issue today is the same as it was in 2004: where will the money come from?
In these economically straitened times, with Congress hellbent on cutting every federal programme going, finding the money to send a new generation of Nasa astronauts to the moon will remain an impossible dream.—
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