TCS Daily

Moonshine State

By Joshua Elder - July 22, 2003 12:00 AM

It's been more than thirty years since man last set foot on the moon. We planted a flag, collected a few rocks and then went home. And home is where we stayed. The space race had been won, after all. Maintaining our first outpost on the last frontier was no longer a compelling national (or commercial) interest.

But that was then, and this is now. China and India are locked in a 21st century space race to put astronauts on the moon within a decade. A recent successful test flight of the European Space Agency's first lunar probe puts it on schedule for an August launch date.

Even the private sector is getting in on the act. The San Diego-based TransOrbital Corporation plans to send up a lunar orbiter in October of this year, followed in early 2004 by the launch of a $20 million satellite owned by LunaCorp, a space exploration company out of Fairfax, Virginia. Both lunar orbiters are designed to collect information about our nearest celestial neighbor in preparation for eventual colonization. Suddenly, the moon is a hot piece of real estate again.

And why not? It's the solar system's most strategic parcel of land (the ultimate high ground, if you will), it's the optimum staging area for future exploration of the solar system, and it possesses a naturally static-free and non-atmospheric environment that makes it the perfect locale for advanced scientific research and precision manufacturing. And the recent discovery of large quantities of ice buried at the moon's poles transforms the prospect of a permanent lunar settlement from science fiction into science fact.

Even the fearsome specter of microgravity, perhaps the greatest obstacle to space colonization, can at last be overcome. It's well documented that long-term exposure to a zero-gravity environment inevitably leads to a weakened cardiovascular system, muscular atrophy and a decrease in bone density. Extreme long-term exposure of a decade or more might well prove to be fatal. Thankfully, lunar gravity and microgravity differ in several fundamental respects. Lunar gravity provides a limited gravitational resistance -- approximately 17 percent of what's found on earth -- enough to keep bones and muscles from severely weakening. It also provides force along the Y-axis, thereby preventing the cardiovascular complications caused by zero-gravity free floating.

With this information in mind, there's good reason to believe that any negative side effects arising from prolonged exposure to lunar gravity could be easily mitigated by proper nutrition and regular exercise in a centrifuge-induced 1G environment. An extended stay in a reduced gravity environment might even have health benefits for humans born on Earth. Organs designed for a higher gravity environment would function more efficiently and not tire as easily in a lunar environment. It could add years to a person's life -- productive, healthy years at that.

Lunar colonization may well be possible, but is it practical? The cost to establish and maintain a settlement on the moon would be astronomical - well beyond the means of the private sector. Even the immense profit potential in lunar industries like helium 3 mining (worth a whopping $4 billion per ton), cannot justify the exorbitant startup costs. The old colonial model of exploiting a foreign territory for resources simply isn't applicable to the moon. It's too foreign, the average price of launching something into orbit, much less to the moon, being over $10,000 per pound.

Which means that the lunar entrepreneurs will have to convince the governments of the world of the intrinsic value of having human beings on Luna. The single largest public works project in the history of mankind, the lunar colony would require an unprecedented level of cooperation between the world's industrialized nations -- a laudable accomplishment in of itself. The moon belongs to all mankind, and an international lunar colony would prevent any single nation from laying claim to it. Which is a very good thing, given Luna's vast military, scientific and economic potential.

Speaking of economics, as a vacation spot the moon has no equal. Once reusable spacecraft make interplanetary travel cheap and reliable, who wouldn't want to go there? Who wouldn't want to lope along the sea of tranquility in 10-foot leaps or witness firsthand the awe-inspiring sight of the earth "rising" over the lunar horizon? Tens of millions would journey there every year -- especially once LunaDisney gets up and running.

Then there are the retirees. The moon's unique environment would give the old and the infirm a brand new lease on life. The reduced gravity would allow their aged hearts to beat easier, their weakened lungs to breathe easier, and their arthritic limbs to move easier. The climate-controlled, contaminant-free artificial atmosphere wouldn't hurt either. Their newfound vigor would allow them to continue working well into their golden years. They would form the core of the moon's work force. Some serving as tour guides or performing administrative duties, while others would receive second-career job training to work as helium minters or scientific research assistants.

Aside from the benefits lunar living would confer upon the seniors themselves, society as a whole would benefit from the amelioration of its looming demographic crisis. Improved health care and declining birth rates have helped raise the elderly dependency ratio in the U.S. to a staggering 23 percent. Projections put the ratio at 35 percent by 2035. Nor is America even in the worst shape. Sweden, Italy and Japan will all reach 35 percent as early as 2015. The current social welfare system -- Social Security, Medicare, etc. -- will either collapse under its own weight or survive only to bankrupt the global economy. There are three possible solutions to this dilemma: dramatically increase birth rates, encourage massive Third World immigration or find a way to make the elderly less dependent. The third option may require more out-of-the-box thinking (like shipping senior citizens off to the moon), but it's still the most effective way to stave off a potential economic apocalypse.

Mankind belongs on the moon; it's our manifest destiny. A destiny delayed for more than three decades by small budgets and minds. Now the lunar frontier beckons once more, and we must answer. Answer by loosening needlessly restrictive commercial space launch regulations. Answer by finally building a reusable, single-stage space vessel. Answer by encouraging cooperation among the various national space agencies, especially in the area of research and development. We have the expertise, we have the resources and -- at last -- we have the vision. For thirty years we've taken nothing but small steps. It's time to finally take that giant leap.

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