KENSINGTON. — Kensington--The science fiction visionaries of the '40s and '50s and '60s didn't think about the planetary-scale devastation that a major space effort would cause. If they had, they would have considered the moon, instead of the earth, as the realistic base for space operations. The moon has no atmosphere to pollute, no ozone layer to perforate, no species to be driven to extinction. It is a natural space station waiting to be inhabited.
Also, as space stations go -- or as they are planned in the endless studies -- the moon has the benefit of a slight gravity to keep things in place, plus enormous amounts of raw materials and unlimited cheap real estate on which to lay out acres and acres and even whole square miles of lunar-built solar panels. Launch costs from the moon to the earth (or to any place in the solar system) would be tens of times cheaper than from the earth. The moon is the doorstep of the earth.
An enduring question about space development is, why bother?
Among the many answers is the continuing build-up of carbon dioxide in the earth's atmosphere. If the growth of human technical cleverness and its environmental effects cannot be stopped, if collective self-control is not possible, then one advantage of space is space itself -- all that room to do whatever we want and on whatever scale.
But talking about large-scale access to space is not the same as doing something about it. We humans hardly ever do anything without being pushed. The Apollo program is an example: Humanity's plans to go to the moon would still be on the drawing boards if the U.S. had not been in competition with the late Soviet Union. Another example is nuclear energy: Regardless of one's feelings about that awesome primal force, human beings were clever enough to get access to it in only a few years, rather than decades, because the U.S. was in deadly competition with Germany and Japan.
Japan. Consider Japan in the context of the moon. Here lies another answer to the question, why space? The 120 million Japanese people live on a California-sized island that is nearly empty of energy and material resources and low-cost land. The moon offers access to all of these.
The Japanese are presently completing their ''H-2'' heavy-lift vehicle to launch large satellites. Its main engine, the LE-7, is under development. It is a powerful engine because it operates at high pressures and burns hydrogen and oxygen, which is the most efficient, and environmentally clean, fuel there is.
The LE-7 engine will be operational by the middle of this decade. It won't be the largest rocket engine ever built, but it will be among the most technically-advanced engines in the world. Its design thrust is within a factor of seven of each of the giant F-1 engines that powered the American Saturn moon rocket.
Could the LE-7 be scaled up to the size of the American F-1 engine, or even larger? Almost certainly. Its designers probably already have larger versions on their drawing boards -- just as we had correspondingly scaled engines 30 years ago.
What might be the utility to the Japanese of a launcher using five or more large hydrogen-oxygen engines ganged together? Such super rocket would be classifiable as a moon shuttle, able to push heavy loads to the moon, perhaps including prefabricated mining and manufacturing facilities.
What could the Japanese manufacture on the moon? Cars are one possibility. But since cars presently sell for $5 to $10 per pound, the cost of moon-to-earth shipment, even at only $2 per pound, would add too much to the sticker price.
What, then, about high-tech products like computers and silicon chips, plus precious metals and maybe even gem-quality crystals worth thousands of dollars per pound? For them, the transport cost from the moon to any point on earth would be negligible.
Japanese industry on the moon would have unlimited access to energy and materials. Real estate would be free. And the low-gravity setting would reduce the cost of mining and manufacturing, construction and materials handling. A lunar setting would be ideal for a major technical economic power that presently has few natural resources.
Cars probably won't ever be cost-effectively shipped from the moon, but other items easily could be sent to any point on earth. If the Japanese (or any other nation -- or corporation!) were to make a leap for the moon, the countries left behind will feel technologically dwarfed and economically and even militarily threatened.
Fortunately, such threats are just the sort of kick in the pants that human beings traditionally have needed to make them actually do things rather than just stand around talking about doing things. If the Japanese, or some other country, were to plant a permanent base on the moon, for whatever reason, other nations would necessarily have to put permanent bases there too.
A flat-out race to put bases on the moon would provide the adrenalin-pumping competitive thrill that our species has always thrived on and excelled with. It would be a non-military motivating force to drive humanity to expand its biological range beyond the earth.
It matters not who leads the way back to the moon. Right now the Japanese have the greatest incentive and the strongest ability. In a few years they will have the means.
In the meantime, space station Freedom, if it ever gets off the ground, will go round and round to nowhere at a high price. That the Japanese are encouraging it makes it appear not implausibly as a diversion of our resources from truly useful programs, such as the development of powerful and reliable space engines, nuclear ones even. And we need to think realistically about permanent colonies on the moon.
The race will be exciting.
Robert Burruss is an engineer and free-lance writer.