Thursday, September 27, 2012

Thoughts on NASA's Lunar Base Proposal

Over this past weekend, the Orlando Sentinel published an article about a proposed NASA space station at the second Earth-Moon Lagrange Point—beyond the Moon, where the Earth’s and the Moon’s gravity cancel out each other, creating a near-stable zone. At about 1.5 million kilometers from Earth, such a base would be the farthest a human being has ever ventured from the planet. Whether it serves a practical purpose or is merely just a “make-work” for NASA’s current Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion capsule, however, is up for debate.

Undeniably, there are some advantages of NASA’s lunar ambitions. For instance, the Earth-Moon L2 point enjoys almost complete radio shielding from Earth, making it an ideal location for an astronomical research station—assuming, of course, that NASA does not want to do it with a much cheaper and practical artificial satellite. A more hands-on advantage to humans, on the other hand, would be to test preventive technologies against deep space radiation and studying the effects of long term deep space exposure on humans, which in fact could be considered as a logical step toward a future Mars mission—however small.

Despite some of its merits, however, disadvantages of this plan are also plenty, starting with the cost. Simply put, the price tag on such an ambitious program is assumed astronomical—assumed because NASA did not dare to include the estimated cost in the proposal. And, in this economic climate when science budgets are getting cut to the bone, a mission that will likely cost tens of billions of dollars is unlikely to go beyond the planning phase.

Also, contrary to popular belief, an L2 space station would be of no value as a refueling depot for deep space missions. First of all, where would they get the fuel from? Although the Moon has considerable water reserves at its poles, mining them would require infrastructure on the surface that is way over the scope of this plan. Furthermore, it makes little to no sense at all to decelerate, refuel, and then re-accelerate, when you can just as well go straight for your target. There is, however, a much deeper issue with this plan then the ones above.

I personally see many similarities between this latest moon base proposal and the recently retired Space Shuttle and ISS programs. While the ISS has some merits, in large, it is the make-work of the Space Shuttle Program, which, in reality, was a huge step backwards from the Apollo era. Think about it! When we landed on the Moon in 1969, everyone was fascinated by the prospects of that truly historic achievement, fantasizing about humans laying eyes on Mars and beyond in the foreseeable future. But these fantasies never did come to fruition. Instead, human spaceflight have become stuck in low earth orbit with little scientific merit. Like many others, I tend to blame the space shuttles for this unfortunate but predictable downturn. The main problem with the Space shuttle Program was the lack of vision, a kind of backward thinking that resulted in building hardware and later finding purpose for it—the International Space Station—instead of the more reasonable thinking of setting an aim first and then developing technologies to achieve that goal. In other words, it is the juxtaposition of the Apollo versus the Space Shuttle programs. And I am afraid that, should this base receive the green light, it would derail us from Mars and other scientifically sound destinations for decades to come. Just like the space shuttles did.

Image credit: NASA

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