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Lunar base illustration
While NASA has started to figure out how to establish a manned base on the Moon, the agency needs to pay more attention to why it should build a base at all. (credit: NASA/John Frassanito and Associates)

Moonbase why

Last week’s announcement of NASA’s plans to establish a permanently occupied lunar base was greeted with a familiar reaction in the media. There were the initial stories about the announcement itself, getting play on evening network newscasts and the front page of next day’s newspapers, and often relying on the same handful of pundits. Then there were the editorials, with some praising NASA for its bold plans and others criticizing it for its folly in sending humans to do a robot’s job. And, of course, there were follow-up articles asking just how much this would all cost. It was the pattern of media attention followed by President Bush’s introduction of the Vision for Space Exploration in January 2004, and NASA’s release of the results of the Exploration Systems Architecture Study (ESAS) last fall.

It was a little surprising, though, to see the same level of attention given to NASA’s press conference last Monday about its tentative lunar base plans. The news made it onto the front page of the Washington Post and New York Times, for example, and got airtime on the networks. Perhaps most critically, given the shifting patterns of media consumption in America today, the news even warranted a mention on Comedy Central’s The Colbert Report. (Stephen Colbert, noting that NASA’s proposal had “no blueprint, no budget parameters, and no timetable”, concluded, “That means there’s only one person who can make this thing work: Donald Rumsfeld.”)

Failing to come up with a compelling answer to “why” runs the risk of making all the other questions moot.

The attention was surprising because, since the Vision’s origins, a lunar base of some kind or another had been planned. In his address at NASA headquarters in January 2004, Bush referred to “extended human missions” on the Moon “with the goal of living and working there for increasingly extended periods.” In other words, a Moon base. What NASA presented on Monday was not much more advanced than that: some of the details about where and when the base might be established had been fleshed out, but detailed technical and budget issues had yet to be finalized—not surprising, since it will be over 15 years before the base, wherever it is and whatever it looks like, is ready for permanent habitation.

One question that NASA could have answered last week is not where, when, or how, but why. The space agency certainly took a stab as it, unveiling a half dozen “lunar exploration themes” that provide the overall rationale for going back to the Moon. But those themes, ranging from science to commerce to settlement, are overly broad and vague: trying to appeal to everyone but running the risk of winning over no one. Failing to come up with a compelling answer to “why” runs the risk of making all the other questions moot.

Six of one, a half dozen of nothing?

NASA’s effort to explain why humans should return to the Moon is outlined on a web page titled, simply enough, “Why the Moon?” The web page notes that there’s no shortage of possible reasons: “If you asked 100 people why we should return to the moon, you’d probably get 100 answers – or more!” The page later explains how NASA, through its Global Exploration Strategy effort, turned all those potential reasons into six broad themes: human civilization, scientific knowledge, exploration preparation, global partnerships, economic expansion, and public engagement.

That’s a pretty exhaustive list: short of looking for Richard Hoagland’s putative alien ruins or the World War 2 bomber the Weekly World News once claimed to have spotted in a lunar crater, there aren’t too many other reasons that wouldn’t fall into one of the categories above. NASA is presumably hoping that there’s something in that list that would appeal to almost anyone with a passing interest in space, ensuring that a broad coalition will form to support the base’s development in the many years (and federal budget cycles) to come.

The problem is that, at the moment, the explanations supporting the themes are as shallow as the themes are broad. The “Why the Moon?” web site includes a 30-second video for each of the themes, where a NASA official introduces the theme but provides only a superficial explanation (which, of course, is all that can be expected in a 30-second spot.) Moreover, the narration in some of the videos suggests that the particular theme is the reason for going back to the Moon, rather than one of several. The web site also offers a “Why the Moon?” poster (PDF, 2.8 MB) with the same six themes listed, but devoting only a single sentence to each of them.

Are those reasons, and their current explanations, sufficient? A closer look suggests that NASA may have its work cut out for it if the agency tries to sell a lunar base to the American public on those grounds.

Scientific exploration is probably the most obvious of the six themes. It takes little imagination to envision planetary geologists in spacesuits, loping across the lunar terrain, studying rocks and regolith: it is, after all, to first approximation what the Apollo astronauts did. In addition to studies of the lunar surface, the Moon itself could serve as a platform for telescopes and other space science experiments, including some human-tended ones.

Human spaceflight advocates typically counter that humans are much more capable than robots. That’s certainly true, but they’re also much more expensive, and for many missions the general public would be perfectly satisfied with the lower, but less expensive, scientific output provided by robots.

The problem with relying on science as the primary reason for human lunar exploration is that, in the eyes of many, science can be done for far less money by robotic missions—which also don’t put human lives at risk. “Manned moon flight may appeal to baby boomers, but it makes little scientific sense for most space missions these days,” the Los Angeles Times concluded in an editorial Sunday. “Robots can now perform, or be developed to perform, most of the tasks people would do at a moon station.” Similarly, an editorial Saturday in the Minneapolis Star Tribune stated, “Today’s best investments in space exploration lie in extending the reach of uncrewed probes like the Mars Global Surveyor.”

Human spaceflight advocates typically counter that humans are much more capable than robots. That’s certainly true, but they’re also much more expensive, and for many missions the general public would be perfectly satisfied with the lower, but less expensive, scientific output provided by robots. In some cases where the scientific stakes are particularly high—such as Mars and the search for past or present life—there may be more support for human exploration, but that’s less likely to be the case on the Moon.

The exploration preparation theme makes the case of using the Moon as a proving ground for the technologies and techniques that would be used on missions to Mars and other destinations. On the face of it, this seems to make some sense: better to learn that a particular system doesn’t work as expected when you’re only a few days from Earth, rather than six months or more. However, there’s an open question about how useful the Moon is as an analogue for Mars: what works on the Moon won’t necessarily work on Mars, and vice versa. This rationale also suggests that the Moon is only a means to a more distant end, and once we’ve learned all that we can about exploration there we’ll pack up and leave (something that would probably suit some Mars exploration advocates just fine.) Some might conclude that the “permanent” Moon base wouldn’t be so permanent after all.

The idea behind the global partnerships theme, as the NASA poster states, is to “provide a challenging, shared and peaceful activity that united nations in pursuit of common objectives.” Sort of like, say, the International Space Station? We’ve seen how well that’s worked, both in space and in foreign relations. The idea of having countries work together to explore the universe is certainly an honorable cause, but it should be a side benefit of the exploration, rather than one of the primary justifications itself.

Similarly, the public engagement theme argues that human lunar exploration program will “encourage students and help develop the high-tech workforce”, another familiar argument for those who have followed the various justifications for the space program over the years. Like international cooperation, encouraging students to study math and science is important and a nice side benefit of any exploration program, but hardly a justification for the program itself.

Under economic expansion, NASA makes the argument that a Moon base and ancillary activities will provide “benefits to life on the home planet”. That phrase sounds perilously close to the old, tired spinoff justification for the space program, and, in fact, in the brief video associated with this theme the narrator mentions that lunar exploration “also fosters innovations that benefit our society and economy.” Fortunately, though, NASA’s vision here is broader than spinoffs: the agency is pitching the Moon as a new economic frontier, a place for companies to do business and develop products and services.

Like international cooperation, encouraging students to study math and science is important and a nice side benefit of any exploration program, but hardly a justification for the program itself.

There are certainly proposals for businesses based on lunar resources, from searching from platinum-group metals deposited by impacting meteorites to beaming solar power back to Earth (and, of course, everyone’s favorite lunar resource, helium-3, ready for the taking on the Moon once we get around to developing fusion reactors.) However, many of these ideas are many years, if not decades, away from fruition, if they are even feasible in the first place. Moreover, these potential new industries will have to struggle with the high costs of space transportation, something the Vision does little, if anything, to address. “The human inhabitation of space in any significant numbers won’t happen until someone can tackle the costs of getting astronauts the first hundred miles up,” an editorial in USA Today last week noted.

That leaves us with one final theme, boldly titled human civilization. It is, as NASA puts it, to “extend human presence to the Moon to enable eventual settlement.” That’s a theme that current NASA administrator Mike Griffin has pushed since taking office, talking about the need for humanity to become a “multiplanet species”. It’s also a theme that appeals to many die-hard space activists, who were sold on the idea thanks to decades of science fiction tales or through the efforts of Gerard O’Neill and his space colony concepts. (Nevermind that terms like “colony” and “colonization”, while used in some media accounts of NASA’s plans, have a somewhat negative, or at least politically incorrect, connotation these days because of their association with European colonial era on Earth.)

The importance of expanding humanity beyond the Earth is undeniable: if humans remain solely on the Earth, the species is vulnerable to a natural or artificial catastrophe. Yet there’s a danger here of looking a bit too escapist. Some will wonder why NASA is spending so much to provide a second home for humanity (one that will only support a handful of people, and won’t be self-sufficient for years, if ever) when that money could be spent to improve life on Earth.

Crafting a better answer to why

So how should NASA justify its plans for human lunar exploration—or is there any justification at all? That argument is beyond the scope of this essay, but some patterns and approaches do emerge should NASA want to strengthen its reasons for returning to the Moon.

If NASA is still struggling to answer the why question when a new president takes office, he or she is more likely to shift NASA’s focus in a different direction.

To begin with, NASA should tighten the list of themes it’s developed. The foreign policy and “public engagement” themes don’t fit well as justifications for lunar exploration: they’re nice things to happen along the way, but selling a return to the Moon on the basis of improving relations with Europe or Russia, or encouraging students to do their math homework, won’t do anyone any good. Science, while important, shouldn’t be seen as the primary or exclusive reason for lunar exploration; otherwise, it would be too easy to replace human missions with robotic ones that, while perhaps less capable, would be far less expensive, a tradeoff many in the general public would be happy to make.

That leaves science standing alongside economic expansion, exploration preparation, and preserving human civilization. Is there a way to wrap these themes together into an overall rationale that can win over, if not everyone, a significant fraction of the American public, not to mention key lawmakers? That’s the challenge that NASA and its supporters face over the next two years. If NASA is still struggling to answer the why question when a new president takes office, he or she is more likely to shift NASA’s focus in a different direction.

The focus at last week’s press conference on how and where NASA will establish a lunar base was to some degree misplaced. Those plans will almost certainly not be implemented through no fault of the agency itself: they will be superseded by changes in technologies, approaches, and scientific knowledge of the Moon. However, what is certain is that those plans, or anything resembling them, will never come to pass if NASA cannot clearly explain to the public why humans should return to the Moon.


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