An analysis of Newt’s bold–or stupid–plan to establish a Moon base by 2020. It’s possible–but unlikely.
In 1961, President John F. Kennedy challenged the nation to put a man on the Moon by the end of the decade.
In 2012, taking direct inspiration from Kennedy’s bold move, presidential candidate Newt Gingrich promised to establish a base on the Moon by 2020.
In 1961, we knew nothing whatsoever about space flight, less about landing on the Moon. Our total spaceflight experience consisted of little more than a human cannonball stunt; Alan Shepard, sealed inside a tiny one-man pod, had been blasted into the sky only to fall back into the ocean. Reaching an altitude of 62 miles, the 15-minute flight barely qualifies as a space flight. And yet eight years later Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the Moon.
So is Gingrich’s plan feasible? Or is it a flight of fantasy from a hopeful politician appeasing to the space base in Florida? Can we establish a base on the Moon in eight years?
It’s tempting to say that if we could expand our space ability from a 15-minute suborbital flight in 1961 to a landing on the Moon in 1969, then surely a country that built the Space Shuttle and assembled the International Space Station can establish a base on the Moon in eight years. We have the experience, we have the hardware, we have the drive, we have the skill . . .
It’s also tempting to say it’s totally impossible. The Apollo program was one of the most expensive government programs in history, rivaling only the Manhattan Project, and was done during a time of fierce international need and overwhelming public support. No one has been to the Moon since 1972. The skills to do so have eroded to the point of nonexistence, and the technology stagnated multitudinous generations behind what we use today. With Obama’s cancellation of the Constellation program, we’ll be lucky to be flying our own astronauts to the International Space Station by 2020, let alone setting up a base on the Moon.
So what would be involved in actually fulfilling Gingrich’s pledge?
The world of 2012 is very different from the world of 1961. I need not mention the current recession or the Republican clamor to cut government spending. Since the government will always spend, and since NASA receives less than 1% of the federal budget, price is not really a factor by itself. The more important factors are social and technological.
In 1961 the world was still spooked by Sputnik. The Soviet Union was an alien monster threatening to eat the world. Space was the new battleground. We had to reach the Moon before the bad guys did.