Reality Check

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Recently the head of the Russian federal space agency announced plans to construct permanent manned bases on the Moon and put cosmonauts on the lunar surface by 2030.

There are many engineers who would agree that the Moon is a more opportune target for manned exploration that should be less risky and more affordable than Mars.

However, with regard to this Russian exploration initiative, this is the latest in a long line of ambitious announcements. Less than a decade ago they announced Kliper, a winged orbiter replacement for their 40-year-old Soyuz. Unfortunately, they had almost no budget and expected a magical fairy to come along and start writing checks. The European Space Agency (ESA) respectfully declined to provide the requested billions of euros when they learned that the spacecraft design and development effort was to be entirely a Russian enterprise.

Instead, Russia developed and “flew” Mars-500, incarcerating a few volunteers for more than a year, an undertaking that cost almost nothing, required very little space expertise (it could just as easily have been orchestrated by Ethiopia), and provided few insights or advancements with regard to the serious challenges of long-duration space exploration.

NASA’s current fraction of the federal budget is 90% smaller than it was in 1966, when the U.S. was serious about manned space exploration.  The ESA budget is 75% smaller than NASA’s current budget.  Japan’s space budget is smaller than the ESA. And Russia spends less on space than Japan.

As far as the ESA, with their current financial crisis, they will be in no position to pay for a manned lunar program, or anything approaching it. And calls by Neil deGrasse Tyson to double NASA’s budget are a political nonstarter.

The only country that is serious about manned space exploration is China, which reportedly has assigned a workforce of 200,000 to their space program. They are nearly as reluctant as the Soviets to reveal details of their space roadmap. Like the Soviets, their primary objectives are nationalism and geopolitical power, rather than genuine exploration.

With regard to lunar exploration, one has to wonder about the cost-benefit ratio for manned lunar exploration. The International Space Station alone consumes in excess of $3 billion per year while accomplishing comparatively little. Just keeping a few humans alive on the Moon would be a very expensive, time-consuming challenge. And one also has to wonder how much lunar terrain they would be able to explore from one permanent lunar campsite. The biggest concern, however, is the lack of a clear, detailed lunar exploration and development strategy beyond putting a few boots on the ground.

It is not totally unreasonable to assume that someday there will be substantial human outposts on the Moon. People may be able to see the bright lights of cities and highways sprinkled across the face of the Moon when they look up at night.  In order for us to reach that future, we will eventually need to manufacture much of the required support infrastructure (power, vehicles, structures, …) on the Moon in order to dramatically downsize the astronomical startup and operating costs.

At this time, although we cannot afford an effective manned lunar exploration program, we, as well as other nations, can easily afford an aggressive exploration and development program, using teams of remote-controlled rovers that can crisscross the entire lunar surface, identifying significant resources, conducting scientific experiments, and constructing the power infrastructure needed to begin serious development of the Moon.

Even with budget cuts, NASA can get the job started while the US economy continues to struggle.  And should the economy ever turn around and a clear majority of Americans favor increased NASA funding, we will be able to accomplish more, faster, starting out initially with an unmanned strategy for lunar exploration and development.

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