- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 14, 2004

PresidentBush’s “bold” space initiative, announced at NASA headquarters Jan. 14, seems to be dead — at least until after the November elections. The visionofapermanent manned base on the moon, to be followed by expeditions to Mars and the great beyond, didn’t excite much public acclaim and got a cold reception on the Hill — even from Republicans who normally support the president. The sure sign: It was not featured in the Jan. 20 State of the Union address.

Themainproblem seems to be money, but the goal itself may be questionable. While no firm figures have been suggested for the whole package, the numbers bandied about reach into the hundreds of billions. The “down payment” is certainly modest enough, but everyone still remembers the price tag of $450 billion for the Space Exploration Initiative of Bush 41. And Congress suffers from feelings of guilt after its spending spree of the past two years. What better way for members to demonstrate their probity and fiscal restraint than by dumping on space projects?

To many, however, a moon base is simply the space station writ large. It’s not “bold” and it’s not new. It does little to advance science, human adventure or the prestige of the United States. On the contrary, it diverts scarce resources from more worthwhile programs. A “stepping stone” to Mars? More likely a detour. It looks like a rather transparent ploy to back out of the space station. Sort of trading one white elephant for another. It is likely to backfire politically (Bush “Moondoggle”). Or: “If you like the space station, you’ll love the moon base.”

What will a moon base accomplish? The scientific return is minimal — certainly when compared to Mars. And you always have to ask: Can the same job be done without a manned base?

Resource exploitation? Helium-3 mining for nuclear fusion, when a working fusion reactor on Earth is just a gleam in someone’s eye? Ice near the lunar poles? We have a lot of that right here on Earth. A solar power supply for beaming energy to Earth? Wrong place — even if you believe in space solar power. Stepping stone for manned interplanetary flight? What technology will they test on the moon that cannot be tested in the space station? Even worse, you cannot test the effects of zero gravity on the moon.

I find it hard to keep a straight face when reading an op-ed in the Jan. 8 Wall Street Journal, arguing for “a self-sustaining lunar base … to assure the survival of civilization?by spreading its seed.” (Yes, just look at the craters from continuing impacts of meteorites.) The author then claims that “the Moon has the minerals and other constituents necessary to support life.” (Yes, except for readily available water and a breathable atmosphere.) It goes on to cite other dubious advantages.

It all reminds me of the Army generals some 50 years ago, who argued for a moon base because military doctrine demands occupying the “high ground.” When I asked how they knew that the moon was “high ground,” they just pointed to it: It’s always “up there.” Seriously.

And from the New York Times (Jan. 22) we learn that this notion is not dead. “The Moon is a beachhead,” according to one Alice Slater, director of the Global Resource Action Center for the Environment. “It’s the high ground from which they want to control space,” she asserted of the Bush administration.

Even sober scientists have succumbed to these notions, as evidenced by the International Lunar Conference, held in Hawaii in November. Over 130 participants “spent many long hours and four major discussion sessions to complete the Hawaii Moon Declaration.” Here are some excerpts:

“We need the Moon for many reasons: to use its resources of materials and energy to provide for our future needs in space and on Earth, to establish a second reservoir of human culture in the event of a terrestrial catastrophe, and to study and understand the universe. Our vision is one of expanding humanity into space on an endless journey. We believe a human return to the Moon is the next step into the Solar System and the future of the human race. Aloha.”

Can the White House initiative be saved? To achieve the plan at a much lower cost — and much sooner — all one really has to do is change one word: from “setting up a manned base on the moon and Mars” to “setting up a manned base on the moon of Mars.” This would be infinitely easier, almost as dramatic, full of good science and definitely less costly. Such a program — to explore Mars from close up — can be done for not more than $30 billon over 15 years — well within the current NASA budget.

S. Fred Singer is a physicist and the first director of the U.S. Weather Satellite Service.

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