Gwynne Dyer: Whose moon bases?

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      The U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Agency (NASA) has just released the full data on last year’s mission to find out whether there are useable amounts of water on the Moon, and the news is good. There is plenty of frozen water on the Moon, plus frozen gases like methane, oxygen, and hydrogen that would be useful for making rocket fuel. This will be very helpful to the Chinese and the Indians when they start to build their bases on the Moon.

      The United States is not going back to the Moon. That plan died when President Obama cancelled the first new American launch vehicles in 25 years—the Ares series of rockets—last February. That put an end to NASA’s hopes of returning to the Moon by 2020 and building bases there for further manned exploration of the solar system.

      Obama promised to support the development of commercial manned spacecraft instead, but those will only be capable of low-orbit operations for the foreseeable future. General Charles Bolden, the current head of NASA, loyally chimed in with blue-sky talk of a glowing future for the agency.

      “Imagine trips to Mars that take weeks instead of nearly a year; people fanning out across the inner solar system, exploring the Moon, asteroids and Mars nearly simultaneously in a steady stream of 'firsts'”, burbled the general. “That is what the President’s plan for NASA will enable, once we develop the new capabilities to make it a reality.” Yes, and if we had some ham we could have ham and eggs, if we had some eggs.

      In reality, it looks like the United States has already passed its Tordesillas moment (and so has Russia). As is so often the case, those who start out ahead in the race fail in the stretch, and others finish first.

      The Treaty of Tordesillas, signed in 1494, two years after Christopher Columbus became the first European to land in the Americas, divided the newly discovered lands beyond Europe between Spain and Portugal along a meridian just west of the Cape Verde islands. It was immensely arrogant, of course, but there were no other countries in the business of maritime exploration at the time.

      Within 100 years, the English, the French and the Dutch had piled in too, and Spanish and Portuguese power was falling fast. In the end, England’s success in appropriating very large amounts of valuable territory led to English becoming the dominant world language. This is neither a good nor a bad outcome, but it is certainly a significant one, and it has some relevance to the current situation.

      Russia (or rather, the old Soviet Union) was the first into space, but the United States rapidly overtook it, and for several decades they jointly dominated the exploration of near space. But the United States threw its lead away in 1973, cancelling the lunar exploration program when there were still three Apollo voyages scheduled, and putting nothing that would take Americans back into deep space in its place.

      Dr. Mike Griffin, NASA’s former head, said of Obama’s decision early this year: “Only once previously has a U.S. president recommended to the Congress that this nation take a backward step in space. On that occasion, President Nixon cancelled the Apollo program, a decision which will come to be regarded as one of the most strategically bankrupt decisions in human history. If such a thing is possible, this decision is even worse.”

      The recent confirmation by NASA that there is plentiful water as well as hydrogen, methane, and ammonia available in frozen form in the lunar soil means that lunar bases are a viable option—and lunar bases are essential to any realistic program that aims to go to the other planets of this system.

      You can move beyond traditional rocket fuels and come up with a fancy new system to provide the energy to drive your space ships, but you still have to have reaction mass. That will account for at least 90 percent of the weight of any vessel that ventures beyond near-Earth space, and as long as you have to haul your reaction mass all the way up from Earth’s immensely deep gravity well, space flight is going to remain cripplingly expensive.

      If you could get it on the Moon, on the other hand, you would only be dealing with one-sixth of the Earth’s gravity. What the recent mission showed that there is not just reaction mass there, but the raw materials with which to make conventional rocket fuels and enough water, the heaviest element in any life-support system, to make human bases there a practical possibility.

      But they are not likely to be American bases—or Russian ones either. Both programs have run out of fuel, and are now restricted to near-Earth operations so far as manned trips are concerned.

      So are Chinese and Indian operations, so far, but the ambition is there and the money will be. Both China and India have already put unmanned space vehicles into lunar orbit, and China has already carried out manned flights in Earth orbit. These are probably the countries that own the future in space.

      Comments

      9 Comments

      seth

      Oct 22, 2010 at 3:04pm

      Research Gywnn Research.

      Congress and the Senate modified the Obama's plan and the final law Bama signed requires work to begin immediately on a heavy lift vehicle (HLV), one derived from technology used on the shuttles and built for Constellation and ready to launch by 2016.

      But you are right the Chinese leadership - almost all engineers - are going to be way ahead of us very soon as our leadership is almost lawyers. Here how.

      The Chinese could care less about greenies, so a modification of Freeman Dyson's Orion scheme is in the works to give them all the lift capacity for which anybody could ever envision a need.

      Drill a 2 mile hole in a salt formation. Put a small nuke at the bottom in a water tank, put a thick steel plate on top of the tank with a automated payload capsule on top. Light the nuke and let er rip. When the projectile exits slam the door shut and redirect the radioactive steam back underground. Radiation leaks - a lot less than the daily radioactive output of one of their coal plants.

      3000 tons at $10 a lb straight to the moon. Seal the hole and drill a new one for the next load.

      Great for compressable ice, steel,frozen food,fuel tanks, rocket fuel, circuit boards, nuclear fuel, copper wire and a thousand other commodities needed in space.

      Humans and flower petals will have to be launched another way.

      Google 150-kiloton-nuclear-verne-gun for more

      With the cargo capacity available, a simple very efficient spacebased transport could use the nuclear engines from stolen NASA Nerva designs since we aren't allowed to use them.
      seth

      Born yesterday

      Oct 22, 2010 at 6:45pm

      With a 10 trillion dollar debt, the US might not even be in low-earth orbit for much longer either. I am amazed that many people, Mr. Dyer excluded, still cling to the notion that the US is a "rich" nation. It is not. It is broke and it will not be able to get out of that hole.

      I have mixed feelings about the decline of the US. On the one hand, the US brought us so many great things from technology to music to food. At the same time, however, the US got into too many unnecessary wars that caused lots of pain abroad. It's tough to reconcile.

      Stubbs

      Oct 22, 2010 at 10:24pm

      A more historically accurate breakdown of the players in space may be: Chinese, Indians, and Caucasians. The US, Europeans, Russians, and Japanese working together have a chance of keeping the "mainly Caucasians" ahead of the Chinese.

      welldoneson

      Oct 22, 2010 at 11:08pm

      Dyer, the condescending twit.
      Proclamations of US demise from this bozo are a dime a dozen,
      and he's probably a millionaire.
      Pretending China and India are jus' cruisin' while the US and Russia are finished is just too precious.
      What an asshat.

      hoh6

      Oct 23, 2010 at 3:01am

      Yep, Space exploration is dead for the forseable future. Government efforts produce true innovation and technological breakthroughs corporate efforts never produce much of anything. But since corporations rather then governments rule on everything that matters a future full of petty greed, Mixed Martial Arts and for profit prisons seems the most likely outcome.

      Astuteobserver

      Oct 23, 2010 at 1:35pm

      I read all of Gwynne Dyer's work, articles and books. But this one makes little sense in light of the future he rather boldly predicted was in store for India and China in his recent book "Climate Wars." In that book, he painted a picture of runaway climate change, famine, warfare and overpopulation crippling India especially and China to a lesser extent too. I have a hard time reconciling that view with all this talk about China and India hypothetically becoming major space powers. It seems more likely that when push comes to shove, like the USSR before them, they will find it difficult to justify spending billions on space exploration when they have millions starving at home.

      blahblah

      Oct 25, 2010 at 5:38pm

      This dude has zero credibility.

      KiDDAA Magazine

      Nov 1, 2010 at 4:03pm

      This guy has all the crediblitly in the world other than to racists, Israeli apologists and those who love US wars.
      He tells the truth and considering we have liars like CNN, CTV, Global Canwest. This guy is the real deal. A white man who has no reason to lie. You dont like it then read the National Post. Now thats a toilet rag.

      Todd

      Dec 7, 2010 at 9:08pm

      Gwynne seems to miss the elephant: there is no longer any compelling reason to send humans into space. Robots can do virtually everything humans can do -- many things much better -- and since the robot trips are one-way, they are immensely cheaper. So by all means continue planetary exploration, but leave humans where we belong, on earth.