- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 28, 2006

An idea whose time hasn’t come: Colonies in space. The notion never goes away, though.

At the Space 2006 conference of the American Aeronautics and Astronautics Association in San Jose, Calif., the participants debated whether to colonize the moon or Mars or just plain space with large orbiting residential satellites, according to an article in Wired.com.

These are serious people in the NASA-industrial complex. You hear the same back-to-the-moon and onward-to-Mars sentiments from people throughout the aerospace world.

Few ask: Why bother?

What can we get from a base on the moon or Mars that comes near justifying the expense? There’s little doubt that with enough effort the human race could build such outposts. The problem is that in terms of cost benefit, the usual rationales fall apart.

The first question is, “What can a human colony do that unmanned probes can’t do far sooner and far more cheaply?”

In recent years the unmanned program has been going gangbusters. The Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity, Cassini to Saturn, Galileo to Jupiter, Mars Express from the European Space Agency, all have been successes. Why send people?

Wired quotes Klaus Heiss, the director of the High Frontier(.org), which advocates putting people into space, as saying that a moon base would allow scientists to study the effect of low gravity on humans. But why bother unless you are going to put a colony on the moon? And why do that?

Colonization — a permanent presence — is definitely what a lot of space folk have in mind. High Frontier uses the evocative phrase “Jamestown on the Moon” and speaks of “artificial villages floating in space.”

There’s nothing pernicious in the idea, but … why do it?

People argue sometimes that, well, we could mine the moon for minerals. The underlying difficulty with this and other reasons for colonies, such as manufacturing things in low or micro-gravity, is the enormous cost of putting weight into space. If we had a truly cheap way of getting lots of materials to Mars or wherever, all sorts of things might make sense. But we don’t.

To calculate the cost of putting a pound of construction material just into Earth orbit, much less of bringing things back from the moon, you have to include the cost of building the shuttle or expendable rocket, of operating Cape Canaveral, paying its employees their salaries and benefits, paying the aerospace companies to develop and maintain the vehicles, and so on. The result is a very large incentive to find ways to do things on Earth instead. Note that industry, which has to make a profit, is not rushing factories into space. It doesn’t make economic sense.

Although the arguments for going to Mars or the moon are often couched in terms of science or commercial advantage, I suspect that the advocates know better. What I think really appeals to them (apart from, in some cases, the hope of contracts) is the sheer poetry of it.

Think of sitting in your living room on Mars, looking out over that vast, red, bleak but somehow attractive emptiness. Engineers do not lack imagination. Further, they like technical challenges.

But it seems to me that if we are going to do things for the romance and adventure of it all, we ought to say so, and be sure that as a nation we think it’s worth the very high price. Maybe we do, or will. At this point I don’t see anything resembling the necessary public commitment.

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