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?
Well, one difference is that Constellation required the development of entirely new rockets, dedicated to use by NASA, on traditional cost-plus contracts where the contractor has few incentives to keep costs down (as long as they don’t go so high as to get the program canceled), but there are incentives to spend money in specific congressional districts and states of the members of the Congress who oversee the budget. Gingrich proposes instead to offer up the funds as a prize to go to whoever gets the job done, with no taxpayer money spent until it is achieved. He cites the Orteig Prize that Charles Lindbergh won by flying non-stop from New York to Paris in the 1920s, or the suborbital X-Prize won by Burt Rutan’s SpaceShipOne seven years ago as precedents, in which the prize money leveraged several times as much expenditure on the goal, with no stipulation as to how it was done. We also understand a lot more about how to do it today than we did in the 1960s.
Would it be possible for someone to win the prize and make money? Perhaps, if they aren’t forced to develop new rockets for it to congressional specifications. If SpaceX gets the Falcon Heavy flying next year, it will be able to deliver a payload to earth’s orbit for about a thousand dollars a pound (and quite a bit less if the company can achieve its stated goal of full reusability, which Elon Musk tweeted earlier this week they think they now understand how to do). That means that, say, five billion dollars would put a minimum of 2500 tons into orbit (equivalent to about twenty Saturn V launches). Most of that would be propellant, and it would leave several billion left over for the actual hardware development. Companies like SpaceX and Bigelow Aerospace have developed hardware for a small fraction of what traditional Air-Force/NASA cost models would indicate it should cost. So it’s not inconceivable that a sustainable base could indeed be established within those parameters, as long as that, rather than job preservation, was the goal. Once established, the lunar water being used for life support could also be used to make rocket fuel, allowing vehicles to be refueled at all locations along the route, and to be fully reusable, dramatically reducing transportation costs.
Here’s the hardest part. It would be a tough sell to a Congress that is used to directing space funds to its campaign contributors — a prize wouldn’t give them an adequate amount of control over where the money ended up. And even if a President Gingrich could get the support of Congress to establish such a prize, there would be no guarantee that a future Congress wouldn’t rescind it, creating a great deal of uncertainty and risk for someone who wanted to pursue it. A private prize can escrow the funds, but there’s no sure-fire way for a fickle U.S. government to do so, particularly in times of trillion-dollar deficits, because the Constitution doesn’t allow a Congress to commit a future Congress to an expenditure. A prize fund would always be at risk of being raided for some more “worthy” social objective.
But there’s another problem. When Speaker Gingrich proposes that the settlement eventually become a U.S. state, he is implicitly advocating withdrawal from the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, which explicitly prohibits claims of national sovereignty off planet. The treaty can be withdrawn from with one year’s notice (and in fact Bob Bigelow has been warning over the past year that the Chinese intend to do exactly that), but getting the State Department and Senate to go along with abandoning a long-standing treaty that we helped negotiate, and which performs a lot of other vital functions, may be a non-starter politically. Better perhaps would be the approach of the Space Settlement Institute, which proposes to have the U.S. recognize private claims of non-state actors, which could accomplish the goal of allowing property on the moon without the need to withdraw from the OST. It would also provide a tradable market in lunar real estate, allowing private settlement ventures to raise funds without the need for taxpayer money. It wouldn’t be a U.S. state, but it might be a settlement of Americans, with American values, which is probably what the former speaker’s goal is.
But step one of such a plan is for Speaker Gingrich to be nominated, and it’s not clear whether Wednesday’s proposal to Florida voters voting in Tuesday’s primary made that easier, or harder.