TCS Daily

Is This the Right Way to Return to the Moon?

By Glenn Harlan Reynolds - September 21, 2005 12:00 AM

President George W. Bush has called for Americans to return to the moon by 2020. Now NASA has come out with a more detailed presentation, reported in, of what they have in mind:

NASA briefed senior White House officials Wednesday on its plan to spend $100 billion and the next 12 years building the spacecraft and rockets it needs to put humans back on the Moon by 2018.


The U.S. space agency now expects to roll out its lunar exploration plan to key Congressional committees on Friday and to the broader public through a news conference on Monday, Washington sources tell . . . .


NASA has been working intensely since April on an exploration plan that entails building an 18-foot (5.5-meter) blunt body crew capsule and launchers built from major space shuttle components including the main engines, solid rocket boosters and massive external fuel tanks.


I'm all for returning to the Moon, but I wonder if this plan is the way to do it. Or, for that matter, the best investment of $100 billion toward spaceflight over the next 12 years.


The problem is that this NASA approach looks like more of the same. Oh, it's better than some earlier efforts: The program emphasizes astronauts learning to "live off the land" via lunar resources, an approach that seemed quite radical back when Bob Zubrin was first championing it. But the technology looks old -- and not "proven reliable," as Space Shuttle components have been less than ideal -- and I don't see any way this program will deliver what we need most: High flight rates and low costs.


I wonder, then, if the money wouldn't be better spent on things that have a higher likelihood of delivering those, like space elevators. As I mentioned in an earlier column, space elevator technology promises drastically reduced costs to orbit (from which, as Robert Heinlein famously observed, you're halfway to anywhere in the solar system in terms of energy) and it looks as if we could build a working space elevator -- or several -- within the $100 billion pricetag and over the same time frame. As this article from last month's IEEE Spectrum noted:


A space elevator would be amazingly expensive or absurdly cheap -- depending on how you look at it. It would cost about $6 billion in today's dollars just to complete the structure itself, according to my study. Costs associated with legal, regulatory, and political aspects could easily add another $4 billion, but these expenses are much harder to estimate.


That's a lot less than $100 billion. And there's more:


In my studies, I have found that the schedule for more elevators, after the first, could be compressed to as little as six months. The first country or consortium to finish an elevator would therefore gain an almost unbeatable head start over any competitors.


That sounds like a reason for us to be the first. On the other hand, the prospect for a new space vehicle of the sort NASA proposes seems dimmer. If it's like every similar proposal for the past three decades it will either (1) never get built; or (2) get built but be much more expensive and much less reliable than we hope.


I'm all for Moon colonies, and I realize that the better can be the enemy of the good. But I'm not at all sure that this plan puts the money in the right place.


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