Wednesday in Florida, Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich proposed a lunar base, to be established by 2020 (the end of his putative second term), using prizes as incentives, that could potentially eventually become a U.S. state when the population reached several thousand. Is it politically, economically, or technically feasible?
Let’s start with the easy part. Can it be done at all?
Well, NASA has considered lunar bases for decades, and there are many concepts. No show stoppers have ever been found, though we still don’t really understand how to operate in such a harsh environment, particularly the moon dust, which Apollo astronauts described as a real problem, getting into everything and likely to create maintenance issues in precision machinery, or clog up cooling fans. Methods of dealing with it would have to be developed and tested, or lunar inhabitants will rely on replacement equipment shipped from earth. Three-dimensional printers may help with this, if replacement parts can be fabricated in situ using sintered lunar materials, as some postulate.
Other than replacement parts, what about logistics for life support on an airless, waterless body? Well, it turns out that the moon isn’t as waterless as we used to think. Recent NASA probes have discovered more than a billion gallons of it in the form of ice at the bottom of a single crater alone. With water for drinking and agriculture, astronauts can also used electrolysis to generate oxygen for breathing. The nitrogen constituent of breathing air would still have to come from earth, but it could be mostly recycled. There is also oxygen trapped in the silicates of the lunar rocks, which also provides silicon, aluminum, titanium, and other useful materials, as well as iron that can be gathered up by simply dragging a magnet through the lunar dust.
So if we’re willing to spend the money, it appears that we have now, or are about to have the technology needed to support a lunar base.
Constellation, NASA’s previous plan to establish a preliminary lunar base by 2020, was canceled a couple year ago because it was far behind schedule, and projected to cost many tens of billions of dollars. Speaker Gingrich proposes to fund the base by setting aside ten percent of NASA’s budget (which would mean a little less than a couple billion a year), so the total cost he is allowing for it would be a little over ten billion in eight years (about the same amount of time that it took to do Apollo). How could it possibly be done so cheaply?