In a recent debate Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich said that he would like to beat the Chinese back to the moon. He has even been so bold as to propose setting up a manned base by 2020, driven by empowering private industry to take the initiative.
It’s ironic to hear moon travel still being debated 40 years after the last Apollo landing in 1972. Between then and now, NASA’s small space shuttle fleet filled in for space travel, but astronauts could only venture as far a low earth orbit — at an altitude much shorter than the distance the early pioneers covered in settling the West.
If there were no Apollo crash program to beat the Soviets to the moon, would we have planned to go to the moon eventually? But this time with a commitment of staying? Or would we never go?
In the immediate post-World War II era, pop culture was filled with the expectation that we would inevitably go spaceward. Nuclear power had been mastered and captured German war rockets were being used to launch scientific payloads to the edge of space.
People were willing to believe that UFOs where planet-hopping alien visitors — it was assumed that we should soon be able do the same with our space technology.
While building ever bigger rockets for the U.S. Army, German rocket pioneer Werner von Braun teamed up with Walt Disney in the mid-1950s to produce a series of prime time TV shows that meticulously outlined how to build a space station and then go to the moon and Mars:
Space travel abruptly got real when the Soviet Union launched the first artificial satellite in 1957 as part of the International Geophysical Year. The glass ceiling of America’s assumed scientific prowess was shattered.
A rapid series of Soviet space triumphs made the U.S. look technologically impotent. The Kennedy administration’s answer to counterbalancing the Soviet preeminence was to scramble to send humans on a lunar round trip before the Soviets did.
But imagine an alternative world history where there was no World War followed by a polarizing competition between two superpowers on the verge of annihilating each other.
Because the pioneering spirit is in America’s DNA, I think that moon travel was inevitable. But a step-by-step approach could have built a robust infrastructure — like building the first transcontinental railroad.
In the 1960s the X-15 experimental rocket planes were already flying to the edge of space. This would have evolved into a fleet of orbital planes and lifting bodies and the next logical step in aerospace history.
Ideally this would have lead to a single-stage-to orbit vehicle. NASA unsuccessfully tried to build one a decade ago as the X-33. Or perhaps there would have been a mothership acting as piggyback carrier for an orbital space plane, as is now being pursued by Microsoft’s Paul Allen.
But the Cold War rush into space meant lofting astronauts in capsules atop intercontinental ballistic missiles. “Spam in a can” was the joke. In a page from Jules Verne, we were putting pilots inside bullets big enough to house them.
The Apollo moon missions were comparable to the first efforts to reach the South Pole by dogsled. The brave astronauts were essentially barnstorming the moon with computers way more primitive than what’s inside your iPhone.
A solar flare could have killed the crew (as dramatize in James Michener’s 1982 novel “Space”). Or, a lunar lander could have been stranded on the surface with no ability for a rescue vehicle (which Apollo 11 command module pilot Mike Collins mused about in his 1974 autobiography, “Carrying the Fire: An Astronaut’s Journeys”).
Back a 1903, Russian space visionary Konstantin Tsiolkovsky wrote that a space station would have to be first constructed as an outpost for humans before we ventured farther.
But rather that doing largely biomedical and microgravity experiments as is now being done on the $100 billion International Space Station (ISS), the primary task would have been to build a true orbiting spaceport. It would be a waypoint for assembling and launching deep space missions.
To save payload weight, the station would have largely consisted of inflatable structures, as is now being pursued by Bigelow Aerospace. It could have been fully assembled with a few heavy-lift vehicle launches.
Like planning and assault on Mount Everest with a string of base camps, the next outpost would have been an inflatable space station at the Earth-Moon Langrage point 1, a gravitational stable space parking lot.
The L1 Gateway would have been the big truck stop on the way to the moon, Mars or anywhere else in the solar system. It would store propellants and other resources, have medical facilities, crew quarters, fabrication and repair facilities.
Beefy nuclear-powered translunar shuttles would ferry crew and equipment between the Earth station and the L1 Gateway station. Spidery lunar landers would routinely leave L1 to rotate crews to a permanent lunar polar outpost. The Antarctic-style base would be dedicated to unraveling the solar system’s 4.5 billion years history as preserved in the lunar rocks.
However, this is where Gingerich’s space vision goes off the tracks. He speculated about having 13,000 people colonize the moon. That’s about as implausible as 13,000 people buying condos in Antarctica. (And, just image the luggage charges!) Gingerich also suggested that the settled lunar territory could be the 51st U.S. state. Careful, lunar colonies under Imperial Earth won’t last, given the American revolutionary spirit.
The basic question in this “Star Trek” fantasizing is whether U.S. politics could have sustained a stable support and budget for a decades-long program of incremental steps to the moon.
The father of X-ray astronomy and Nobel Laureate Riccardo Giacconi once lamented, “I don’t know if you can have a viable space program in a democracy.”
Just look at American political history. After the Apollo landings, President Richard Nixon killed any program to go back to the moon. This was Kennedy’s vision, not his. Nixon dropped building any more Saturn V heavy lift launch vehicles. Under the shadow of the Vietnam War, Nixon opted for the most inexpensive design of the space shuttle. It would serve as a freightliner and cruiseliner to low Earth orbit.
In the 1980s Ronald Regan embraced what was then called Space Station Freedom — at the cost of canceling the Superconducting Super Collider. Congress said that America could only afford one Big Science project at a time.
Under the Clinton administration, this morphed into the International Space Station (ISS) to engage Russia after the Cold War. This put the ISS in a high inclination orbit that made spacecraft servicing unlikely.
Both Presidents George Bush (41st U.S. President) and Bush (43rd) directed NASA to plan for going to back to the moon and then on to Mars. But the available financial resources didn’t match the daunting requirements of this new “Vision for Exploration.”
Finally, the Obama administration now wants a heavy-lift vehicle to take astronauts somewhere.
The easiest to place to reach is a near-Earth asteroid, though the scientific payoff is probably less valuable than what could be accomplished on the moon.
And now Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney says that he will lay out a new “sweeping vision” for NASA and space exploration. But he hasn’t quite figured out what that vision is yet. It definitely won’t include a moon colony because that’s Gingrich’s idea.
Perhaps without the competition and nationalistic spirit fueled by the Cold War we would have been unwilling to devote effort and expense to leaving Earth’s cradle.
Or, alternatively, maybe a consortium of nations would have funded the first moon expedition. They would have planted a banner of international flags on the first manned moon landing. But perhaps not until 2020.
Image credit: NASA