The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews

Lunar base illustration
A 1980s-era illustration of what a future moonbase might look like. (credit: NASA)

How important is the Moon?

The last week has seen renewed speculation over whether or not the President will announce a new space policy, one that will take America back to the Moon to stay. The debate over why we should or should not go naturally will intensify.

Of course there are lots of good, basic reasons why we should build a sustainable moonbase. They have been laid out over the years by the space advocacy community. The scientific and technological knowledge to be gained by building such a base is huge. The moon is an ideal point from which to launch missions to Mars and beyond. Mineral and energy resources, for example, helium-3, are there to be exploited.

What is not often said is that the moon is a critical, so called “Gibraltar point”, in the Earth-Moon system. It was the late G. Harry Stine who first used this analogy, noting that in the heyday of the British Empire Gibraltar was the critical base that allowed the Royal Navy to dominate the western Mediterranean and critical parts of the eastern Atlantic. The shape of the prevailing winds as well as the geography of the straits gave Britain the ability to “swing” their fleets from the Med to the Caribbean and back again without the need to return to their bases in Britain for replenishment and refitting. Nelson’s victory at Trafalgar would not have been possible without their base on the “Rock.”

The Moon will be a comparable asset for roughly similar reasons. It’s gravity rather than the winds that determine the military “geography” of space. The Moon dominates the Earth’s gravity well in the same way that a mountain dominates a valley. A military force based on the Moon would find it easy to return there for replenishment and refitting. The Moon’s resources could be used to build any number of weapon types from simple kinetic energy “Rods From God” to more sophisticated anti-satellite and directed energy systems. Bases built deep beneath the lunar regolith would be hard targets indeed. The Moon is a natural fortress and this fact must be taken into account by any world leader who is thinking about military strategy in the next century and beyond.

What is not often said is that the moon is a critical, so called “Gibraltar point”, in the Earth-Moon system.

The Outer Space Treaty, of course, prohibits any signatory from building such a base and there is no sign that it will be abolished any time in the foreseeable future. Treaties and international agreements are inherently fragile things. History shows they only exist as long as powerful nations are willing to follow them. Idealists who believe that these kinds of agreements can substitute for military and economic power are not only often disappointed, but can sometimes take those who follow them down with them.

In his 1999 book, “The Avoidable War,” J Kenneth Brody shows how the British peace movement helped paralyze British power at a critical moment when Hitler could have been stopped as he reoccupied the Rhineland, overturned Europe’s security structure, and set in motion the logic that would lead toward World War Two. In spite of a lot of overheated rhetoric, no one comparable to Hitler is leading any of today’s world powers. That, however is no reason not to imagine that in the future the world will not be a far nastier place that it is now.

This brings us to back to the Moon and to its relationship with American spacepower. American spacepower, like British 19th century seapower, has military, commercial, scientific, and “colonial” aspects. Building a base or a colony on the Moon will enhance America’s non-military spacepower. For this reason alone it would be a good thing to do from a national security standpoint. Even more important, it will provide America with a foothold that, if needed, can be transformed into a real military base in an emergency.

Building a new home for humanity on the Moon is in the national interest in the same way that building the Panama Canal or carrying out the Marshall Plan was.

The Chinese are thinking about such a base and no doubt believe that they will find it militarily useful to have such a base. It would be a mistake to try and build a single international moonbase, similar to the ISS. Instead a number of moonbases that will probably be built that will provide for a level of mutual support and will, under normal circumstances, be open to visitors. However benign the stated reasons for building these bases, though, they are major national assets.

This Administration has often tried (with mixed success) to integrate its efforts so that its actions in one area, say energy, support its efforts in another, say Middle East policy. There is nothing new or particularly original about this, but they do seem to push this concept more intensively than their predecessors did. A drive to build a sustainable lunar base would support their plans to secure American supremacy in the Earth/ Moon system, to keep America at the forefront of science and technology, to inspire and educate a new generation of highly trained scientists and engineers, to diversify America’s sources of energy and minerals and to show the world that this nation still has the pioneering spirit. As Ronald Reagan said that Americans “have every right to dream great dreams.” Building a new home for humanity on the Moon is such a great dream. It is in the national interest in the same way that building the Panama Canal or carrying out the Marshall Plan was. In the most profound way, such a project would be in America’s enlightened self-interest.