Everybody’s Going to the Moonbase

During a campaign stop in Florida in advance of the next Republican Primary, former speaker of the house Newt Gingrich promised the moon and the stars to Florida voters: "By the end of my second term, we will have the first permanent base on the moon, and it will be American."

It's one of the few things that I've heard from Gingrich that I've liked: returning to space with the full backing of the United States government. With a real perception that the United States has begun to fall behind other countries when it comes to programs in space and with NASA facing budget cut backs and the loss of its most visible program, the Space Shuttle, it’s a nice thing to hear, especially for those who focus on US efforts in space. However, it’s also an empty promise on Gingrich’s part, designed simply to gain traction against his rival, Mitt Romney in advance of the debates.

The Florida ‘Space Coast’ relies much on the infrastructure that's been built up around NASA's launch facilities: the demise of the Apollo Program in the 1970s led to massive layoffs, while the more recent Space Shuttle cancellation has led to further reductions of demand for the highly skilled work force that the industry requires. It's easy to see why Gingrich would propose such a program in Florida: it means hundreds of thousands of new, high paying jobs. At the same time however, it means a complete reversal of personal philosophy, because it would require a massive government program and spending to rebuild the space program to the point where not only reaching the moon, but also establishing a logistical system to support it, would be the first steps. Once established, it's an expensive, ongoing effort to build, maintain, supply and staff a permanent habitation on the lunar surface.

United States space programs have an odd effect on domestic politics: Republicans, traditionally the supporters of limited or restrained government, support such programs: it's heavily tied to defense and national pride, while Democrats typically see the money that's going off-planet as something that can be used to help solve the numerous problems back on the ground. Gingrich, attempting to fulfill his own fantasies, would never get far with a right-of-center government that is looking to bring down government spending (presumably), while the money that is left over would be fought over by those who's programs are being slashed.

The drive to go to the moon wasn't a whim of the U.S. public: it was the result of a carefully crafted argument made for its existence: national security. The development of rockets that could take people and equipment up to space were in place to support Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles, as a check against Soviet power growing in Europe and elsewhere in the world. A highly public and dramatic example of the progression of U.S. technology, the existence of a space program capable of reaching the moon was a powerful indication of what the country could do. Certainly, if NASA could send people to walk around on the moon, the Soviet Union was well within reach of the U.S. Strategic Air Command and its nuclear arsenal.

NASA's budget began at a relatively small amount in 1958: $89 million, $488 million as of 2007. This would steadily grow from .1% of the US budget to 2.29% of the federal budget following President Kennedy's speech at Rice University in 1962. The budget for NASA would then double to 4.41% in 1966, during the height of the Gemini and Apollo programs, and would steadily decline. By the time we landed on the moon in 1969, it was back down to 2.31%, or $4.2 billion dollars. ($21.1 billion today). As of 2007, NASA's budget was around $17 billion dollars, but at the equivalent of .6% of the entire US budget. With the entire economic health of the United States in question, it's a program that's largely seen as non-essential and expendable when it comes time to tighten the belt. To reach the moon, NASA would likely have to return to spending levels seen in the 1960s: twice the budget that's been on the books, for sustained periods of time, and on top of that, maintain public engagement for the same amount of time.

Returning to the moon isn't something that can be picked up after forty years, requiring an entirely different mindset and mission stance than the low-earth orbit work that's been done since the early 1980s. New rockets would need to be constructed, and an entirely new logistical support system would need to exist to support such a mission.

This is all before one asks the next question: why return to the Moon and why set up a permanent base on its surface? The original lunar missions were exploratory in nature, and the first people over the finish line in an international race. The Cold War is long since over, the United States has proved that they could reach the moon, and the American public returned to their lives back on Earth. A self-sustaining moon program simply cannot exist for the sake of its own existence, and cannot exist as a show to the rest of the world. A graduated, strategic plan for going to the Moon and beyond, for a concrete, supportable purpose is the only way that the United States will work to go beyond Low Earth Orbit.

There are potential resources in the skies above Earth. Asteroids contain a number of metals, and there's quite a bit of scientific knowledge to be gained, but somehow, I don't think that Gingrich had anything in mind other than restoring the glory days of the United States.

Gingrich isn't going to go far with this plan: already, Romney has slammed him for his plan: "That's the kind of thing that's gotten this country into trouble in the first place." I disagree with Romney's assertion: going to the Moon brought about quite a lot of technology and a sense of security. As Craig Nelson noted in his 2009 book, Rocket Men: The Epic Story of the First Men On The Moon, going to the moon was one of the great endeavors that makes the country worth defending. But, there's a lot of competition for that sort of thing, and I don't foresee a serious, government-backed program coming to fruition in the near future during the current economic climate.

Romney's words indicate that a space program under his administration would fare worse, and of the two, Gingrich's attitude is the best of the group - if he was serious about it. Of course, if he was serious about it, he'd have serious questions about his self-proclaimed description as a 'Reagan-style conservative'. Either way, the Obama administration's move to bring about a space industry using private enterprise seems to be to be the best way to foster the growth of a sustainable American presence in space, something that seems like it would be far more in line with what a Republican administration would back.

Returning to space should be a priority for the country: it’s a means to accomplish great things, from walking on another planet’s surface, to discover incredible things, and to advance the human race far beyond its imagination. At the same time, it’s a way to ensure an industry that is advanced and highly skilled, which is something that will keep us in space even longer. Because of that, I don't believe that it should be a political football, simply to score a couple of percentage points.

The Future, Catching Up to Today

On July 20th, 1969, an estimated 500 million people around the world  turned on their televisions to witness Neil Armstrong taking his first steps on the moon. In the years since then, interest in NASA has certainly waned, even after the second moon landing. Apollo 13's live broadcast while they were en route to the moon was not picked up by any of the major networks, something that none of the astronauts were aware of while they were recording. Unfortunately, interest in NASA still seems to remain low, until high profile problems crop up and really serve only to cripple the agency's image. That's hard to counter when they have a hard time reaching the population with the good news - which, surprisingly enough - does happen.

One thing that I've found recently is that NASA has entered the social networking world of the Internet, bringing live updates to users. Social networking sites fascinate me, and we're only beginning to explore their use. Sites such as Facebook and Twitter are only the latest big sites, and NASA has begun to use these, and by doing so, will hopefully reach more people around the world with what is going on.

Facebook has numerous groups and pages for NASA. The Official NASA Facebook Group has some active discussions, but the real place to keep an eye on is the pages and events, which can allow users to keep up to date on announcements and updates, as well as letting people know when things, such as launches, happen. I've subscribed to a couple of pages, notably the Kepler Mission, and the Last Mission to Hubble which is scheduled for sometime early 2009. The space shuttle has its own page and links in to two event that have been created, the launch of STS-119 (Discovery), which will be February 12, 2009 and STS-125 (Atlantis), which launches May 12, 2009. Both pages link in to other pages, where I've since learned that 119 will be carrying a truss for the International Space Station and that 125 will be servicing the Hubble Space Telescope.

Wikipedia comes into play here with all aspects of upcoming space information, especially with the upcoming shuttle missions, with a page for both STS-119 and STS-125. Each page not only outlines the mission that both shuttles are scheduled to complete, but also information about the crew, the mission patch, pictures and other relevant information. People with free time on their hands can also go to information on both shuttles, Discovery and Atlantis, which gives you more information about the shuttles individual history.

With the upcoming missions to the Space Station, it's interesting to find that astronauts on the International Space Station have begun to use twitter. Twitter is a newer service called micro-blogging, and allows for short status updates in the real time, which has proven to be extremely popular. Looking around the internet, there are a number of other NASA services that utilize the tools: NASA has an official feed, as does the Space Shuttle Endeavor, as well as upcoming missions: STS-119 and STS-125, which help to pass along developments as the crews prepare for their missions. Each one of these has several thousand followers receiving the updates.

Even sites such as Youtube is extremely handy for getting up to date information. A couple months ago, Astronaut Heide Stefanyshyn-Piper dropped her tool bag while making repairs to part of the International Space Station. Video, taken from her helmet camera, was up on youtube fairly quickly. (Interestingly, the tool bag is visible if you know where to look). There are other videos online, such as STS-126 crew wake-up call, Flight Day 14 and Riding on board Atlantis during re-entry. There's even an entire section of podcasts available through iTunes, which I haven't begun to explore yet.

I have my doubts about wikipedia, especially for concrete historical research, but for things like this, especially as events happen, and social networking sites are even better, because they allow the PR people to release whatever information they want, to a specialized audience who wants to receive this. Not only that, but there is an incredible ease to which users can pass along information to other users who they think might be interested, by inviting them to events or just passing along the URL to someone. NASA has kindly posted up a page (Riding onboard Atlantis during re-entry) that links into a lot of the sites that they have begun to post up update to, which touch on some that I don't do much with, including Myspace and flickr.

There is a vast amount of potential for the general public to have an unprecedented view of NASA's operations in ways that weren't around just a couple years ago, let alone fifty years ago for the first moon landing. Yet, with that number, 500 million people watching those first steps, it's a wonder why we have yet to see the same level of interest with space exploration that is currently ongoing, even with the ease and degree to which we can watch. Hopefully, person by person, NASA will once again command a certain amount of attention, even for the more "mundane" missions to outer space. For me, I now know when the shuttle missions will be happening, so I won't miss another one.