COMMENTARY | Presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich came under fire -- mostly for economic reasons -- when he proposed at the CNN Republican Presidential Debate in Jacksonville that he would like to have a permanent moon base on Earth's lone satellite by the end of his second term as president. But even if his ideas have some logistical hurdles to cross, there is ample reason to believe that an American moon base could be operational in a decade or two. Besides, the space race never really went into hiatus; the major players merely took a slower track, giving others a chance to enter the race.
A Moon Base By 2020?
There are several reasons to develop a moon base: military and strategic, scientific, economic, or simply territorial. But Gingrich's moon base ideation may have been spurred by the growing interest of other nations in reaching the moon. With a sort of Kennedy-esque vision of national direction, Gingrich revived the dream of not only reaching the moon, but obtaining a bit of it for the American people. A 2020 date might be somewhat optimistic, but he said he'd like to set up shop before China, which has plans to put a man on the moon by 2024.
The Obama administration has decided to forego the moon, concentrating on research and development, cooperating in international space endeavors, planning a future mission to an asteroid, and getting to Mars by 2035. But no moon mission. In fact, President Obama told his audience, which included moonwalking astronaut Buzz Aldrin, when he laid out his Space Policy at the John F. Kennedy Space Flight Center in Florida in April 2010, "We've been there before. Buzz has been there."
A Renewed Space Race?
The United States is the only country to have ever placed moonwalkers on the lunar surface. Twelve, in fact. However, with the development of several space agencies around the planet, that could soon change to simply being the first.
As mentioned, China has designs on getting to the moon. A Hong Kong newspaper reported in 2006 (recounted by Reuters) that a top Chinese space program official stated that China planned its first moonwalk for 2024. A moon base, territory grab, and mineral extractions will then begin, according to Robert Bigelow, founder of the private space company Bigelow Aerospace, who told Discovery Newsthat the moon is the obvious next step in human exploration and development. And although there exists an international space treaty, the Declaration of Legal Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, that prohibits any one nation or organization from owning through claim, use, or other means any part or all of the moon, that will have little bearing on the situation at hand once a nation establishes an outpost of some kind on the lunar surface. History is littered with broken treaties.
JAXA (Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency) also revealed in 2006 in an AFP report its long-range plans for putting a man on the moon by 2030. Spokesman Satoki Kurokawa stated that Japan hoped to get a man on the moon by 2020.
India, which has sent unmanned orbiters to the moon, has also expressed an interest in a moon base.
What About Russia?
Gingrich's moon base could also see realization in renewed efforts by the Russians to reach the moon. A Cold War competitor as part of the Soviet Union, the Russian Space Agency Roscosmos announced Jan. 19 (per BDK) that they had enjoined talks with European and American space partners about a possible base or manned orbiter.
So was Gingrich's idea a lunatic's dream? Hardly. And with all the attention his moon base comments have received, they could very well spark renewed interest in America's manned space program, which ended with the touchdown of the shuttle Atlantis in July.