NASA can't explain why we need a lunar colony.
The United States will have a permanent base on the moon by the year 2024, NASA officials said on Monday. What does the space agency hope to discover on the moon? The reason it built the base.
Coming under a presidency whose slogan might be "No Price Too High To Accomplish Nothing," the idea of a permanent, crewed moon base nevertheless takes the cake for preposterousness. Although, of course, the base could yield a great discovery, its scientific value is likely to be small while its price is extremely high. Worse, moon-base nonsense may for decades divert NASA resources from the agency's legitimate missions, draining funding from real needs in order to construct human history's silliest white elephant.
What's it for? Good luck answering that question. There is scientific research to be done on the moon, but this could be accomplished by automatic probes or occasional astronaut visits at a minute fraction of the cost of a permanent, crewed facility. Astronauts at a moon base will spend almost all their time keeping themselves alive and monitoring automated equipment, the latter task doable from an office building in Houston. In deadpan style, the New York Times story on the NASA announcement declared, "The lunar base is part of a larger effort to develop an international exploration strategy, one that explains why and how humans are returning to the moon and what they plan to do when they get there." Oh–so we'll build the moon base first, and then try to figure out why we built it.
NASA itself can't really offer an answer, though it does offer a free, downloadable "Why the Moon?" poster. According to the poster, a moon base would "enable eventual settlement" of Earth's satellite—which might happen someday, but represents an absurd waste of tax money in the current generation. (No one has any interest in settling Antarctica, which is much more amenable to life than the moon and can be reached at far less than 1 percent of the cost.) NASA also says there might be commercial opportunities on the moon. Ha! The agency justified the space station partly with the claim that commercial enterprises would pay hefty fees to use the it for microgravity manufacturing; instead, there's been no revenue-generating activity on the space station, other than a golf ball commercial and the space-tourist fees paid to the Russian space agency. If businesses have no profit use for low-Earth orbit, how would they make money on the moon, with at least double the launch expense? Hilariously, NASA says another purpose of the moon base would be to "create international lunar heritage sites." We'll preserve that dust for future generations! And the moon base would be the risk to the "lunar heritage" in the first place.
So, what is it for? Transparently, the true goal of the moon base would be to keep budget lines and contracts flowing to the congressional districts and aerospace contractors wired in to current NASA spending.
Don't we need a moon base to go to Mars? No! When George W. Bush made his Mars-trip speech almost three years ago, he said a moon base should be built to support such a mission. This is gibberish. All concept studies of Mars flight involve an expedition departing from low-Earth orbit and traveling directly to the red planet. Stopping at the moon would require fuel to descend to the lunar surface, then blast off again, which would make any Mars mission hugely more expensive. The launch cost of fuel—that is, the cost of placing fuel into orbit—is the No. 1 expense for any manned flight beyond Earth. The Lunar Excursion Module, the part of the Apollo spacecraft that touched down, was two-thirds fuel—all exhausted landing and taking off again from the moon. Rocket technology hasn't changed substantially since the 1960s, so a large portion of the weight of any Earth-to-Moon-to-Mars expedition would be dedicated to the fuel needed for just the layover. This makes absolutely no sense, and the fact that administration officials get away with telling gullible journalists that a Mars mission would use a moon base shows how science illiteracy dominates the big media. (It is imaginable that a moon facility could support Mars exploration by refining supplies from the lunar surface and then using automated vessels to send the supplies to the red planet, or to rendezvous with an expedition en route. But that's pretty speculative, and at any rate, the cost of building a moon base would far exceed that of simply launching the supplies from Earth.)
How much will it cost? NASA said Monday it can build a moon base for about the $10 billion per year it now spends on the (soon-to-be-retired) space shuttle and the space station. (The agency also says that the international community will soon begin funding the space station, but no nation has agreed to this.) Considering that the space station and shuttle cost about $10 billion per year, a moon base might cost much more. The space station is 200 miles away and only goes up, never comes down. The equipment for a moon base would need to be accelerated to a significantly higher speed than was required for the space station, and that means a lot more fuel and a lot more expense. Moon-base ships will also need lots of fuel to descend to the lunar surface, and some will need still more fuel to blast off again. Remember, launching the fuel is a major expense. The Apollo program spent about $135 billion, in 2006 dollars, to place about 50 usable tons on the lunar surface. Even an austere moon base would need 300 or 400 tons of structure, equipment, fuel, vehicles, and life support—and probably more. Suppose today's technology allows for lunar-rated materiel to be built and placed on the moon at half the cost of the Apollo project. This quickly gets you to a program cost of at least $300 billion to build the moon base.
What should NASA do? As I argued in Slateback in March, rational budget priorities for the agency would include first and foremost an exhaustive study of the sun, as well as the Earth and Mars and Venus, the two other Earthlike planets in the solar system, with automated probes and satellites. Second, it borders on criminal that NASA is doing nothing to prepare for a deadly comet or asteroid strike. (The agency says it has already cataloged 835 "potentially hazardous" large space rocks.) Third, space telescopes should continue to be used to study the distant universe. Fourth, researchers should be working on a breakthrough in propulsion technology, which could make getting to the moon more affordable.
For 20 years now, NASA has gone through one iteration after another of supposed "dramatic" self-reevaluations, and always come to the same conclusion: All existing spending programs having to do with the astronaut corps are sacrosanct, regardless of whether they serve any purpose. With public-good space needs unmet and the enunciation of a moon-base plan that will waste colossal sums of public money, agency director Michael Griffin has simply raised NASA's middle finger to the taxpayer.
Gregg Easterbrook is a fellow at the Brookings Institution. His most recent book is The Progress Paradox: How Life Gets Better While People Feel Worse.
Illustration by Alex Eben Meyer.