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Lunar Boondoggle?



We are in the middle of another space race, according to Vice President Mike Pence, "just as we were in the 1960s." No, not with those Sputnik-launching Ruskies this time. Today's race is with the Chinese. In his speech to the National Space Council earlier this year, Pence cited, as evidence of China's lunar ambitions, its Chang'e 4 mission, which landed a robotic probe on the moon's far side in January.

The space race — the original Cold War race of the 1960s — effectively ended on Dec. 27, 1968, with the safe return of the Apollo 8 moon-orbiting mission. It was the first time humans had "slipped the surly bonds of Earth" and come under the gravitational pull of another body, thus demonstrating to the Soviets that anything they could do in space, we could do better. From then on, the Soviet space program was an also-ran.

And now (to the surprise of many of us!) it turns out we're in a similar race with the Chinese, who — according to Pence — are determined "to seize the lunar strategic high ground and become the world's pre-eminent spacefaring nation." Because, you know, whoever gets there first wins. But what is there to win exactly?

Prestige. Ah yes, we all know about that. And with Pence's moon-return goal being 2024, might it be too cynical to suggest that, if Trump wins a second term, our present VP might be in the midst of an election campaign of his own? But we've already won the prestige, courtesy of the $112 billion (today's dollars) Apollo program. Any follow up to that would be like the second party to climb Everest. (Ever heard of Ernst Schmied and Juerg Marmet?)

Resources: Any really useful materials on the moon can't be seen from Earth. If they exist, they're in "cold traps" at the poles, where the sun never shines. Based on tentative findings from unmanned lunar probes, 4 billion years of comets have brought a wealth of materials to the moon, such as water, ammonia and carbon monoxide. Most of these compounds have long since evaporated from the lunar surface but they should be in deep freeze in those dark polar craters, just waiting for us to come and mine them. Water would be especially useful, both for humans and plants (assuming one day we have greenhouses on the moon) and also as rocket fuel when broken down into its constituent hydrogen and oxygen. Ammonia, composed of hydrogen and nitrogen, has potential, too — plants need nitrogen.

And on and on: Helium 3/thorium for future fusion/fission nuclear reactors; titanium; the far side of the moon for optical and radio telescopes, absent interference from Earth; lunar soil as the matrix component of futuristic 100,000-people cylinder colonies in space, as envisioned by the late Princeton University physicist Gerard O'Neill.

Way Station to Mars: Where some of us really want to go is Mars, which is a potential home to humans, with abundant (frozen) water and carbon dioxide, nitrogen and gravity twice that of the moon. Think terraforming (See Field Notes May 30 and June 6, 2019). But while the moon is just three days away, Mars is six to nine months travel, and then only when the relative positions of Earth and Mars allow. The moon is potentially a useful stepping-stone if we could fuel Mars-bound rockets with moon-fuel. That's because any time we boost anything into Earth orbit and beyond, at least 90 percent of what we're lifting off the launchpad is fuel. If instead we could obtain fuel for our spacefaring ventures from the moon (with 18 percent Earth's gravity), we'd be way ahead of the current game.

The Apollo missions never were really about the moon; they were about nations competing back on Earth. If that's the best motivation for future lunar missions, how about we instead aim for a worthy, non-boondoggle, goal? Before John Kennedy opted for putting a man on the moon, he favored displaying America's technical prowess by building desalination plants that would have provided limitless fresh water to the world. Just saying.

Barry Evans ( would skip the moon in favor of (1) desalination plants or (2) Mars.

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