SJAA Ephemeris April 2004 | SJAA Home | Contents | Previous | Next


The Lunar Bush

Dave North


First, should you find yourself in South Africa or Antarctica April 19 you can catch a partial solar eclipse. I doubt it's worth a special trip though.

In other news, you've probably heard Bush has decided tentatively to announce a mission to Mars someday eventually.

You may also have heard as part of this proposal that a base should be built on the Moon to support the effort.

It's an interesting detail to ferret out of an otherwise extremely muzzy mission approach -- and one that started up an old controversy all over again.

Okay, I digress: politicians proposing a vague plan to do, oh, something ... is not necessarily a bad thing. Such people seldom actually know how to get anything done, so restraining themselves from actually interfering with people who do know is something we should encourage.

The controversy?

Whether a base should be constructed on the Moon or at the Langrangian Point du Jour (any of five stable orbital points shared by the Moon and Earth. The most popular are L1 -- between the Earth and Moon -- and L5, which trails the Moon by 60 degrees).

Both plans have merit and for that reason I think we'll eventually do both (and much more). So I guess I see it as a "which one first" argument rather than a "which one" problem.

Of course "who" is another good question, since it increasingly looks like the United States hasn't the resolve to start into space in a big way.

Getting past all that, what are the advantages of Bush's base on the Moon? I won't speculate as to whether he actually knows -- maybe someone should forward this article to the White House. I'll try not to use too many long words.

Gravity is a big plus. You can put stuff down and it will stay there. But of course there isn't quite so much on the Moon, meaning anything you need to lift from there would require much less thrust.

The bad news is, you still have to lift it. If you could build a transport vehicle at a Lagrangian point from materials at hand ... oh wait, there aren't any. Yet.

Which brings us to materials. Sure there's a lot of stuff on the Moon, but how useful is it? You can extract aluminum, lots of silica, and boatloads of iron in the right places. Good start, but you might also want some water.

Is there some? Don't know. Maybe.

None at L(1, 4 or 5) though. Yet.

On the Moon, you have shade. This can actually be pretty handy -- you can set up in a shady spot and stick out solar reflectors and collectors for power and temperature control. You can do that in orbit, too, but not so easily. Plus you get bonus radiation shielding on the cheap.

Since the Moon has no tectonic activity to speak of, you've got one heck of a steady platform for a really big telescope. That little hint of gravity (and the inertial mass) make aiming the telescope easier, but it also means a heavier structure and warping worries. Also, you need a (very slow) tracking mount.

Plenty of materials around for making glass, though.

Gravity is good for your bones, muscles and digestion. Etc.

But what it really comes down to is finding a way to make either place sustainable, and having enough hardware and materials to construct a hop-off base.

There are materials on the Moon but it's not clear there are enough of the right materials. Anything you have to import is a big problem.

Everything would have to be imported to a Langrangian Point, save for any junk you may find floating there. It would also have to be decelerated into a stable orbit (the Moon can decelerate most things by itself, as the various craters can attest).

But once you have the stuff there it can be launched away pretty easily.

So why do you suppose the Bush League chose the Moon base approach over a stable orbital base?

My guess is, surprise, politics. By now most people are catching on that the International Space Station is probably just stupid. Also, the glory days of NASA were the race to put Neil Armstrong on the Moon (though, eventually, putting Harrison Schmitt there was probably a better idea overall).

So another "space station" probably sounds like a questionable idea, but going back to the Moon might get folks excited.

Of course, I'm dubious of the whole rhetorical crock and don't necessarily think any of this will actually get done.

But it should. We should be back on the Moon, we should be at L1, and we should be at L5 and lots of other places by now.

But you knew that already.

The good news is, China and India and the European Union are starting to get their space legs, and it looks like there's hope some humans will finally get moving out into space.


Previous | Contents | Next