For NASA, a plan to colonize the moon

A permanent base to pursue science, prepare for Mars

December 06, 2006|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,Sun reporter

NASA's concept for a permanent settlement on the moon goes far beyond a mere habitat where people can live for extended periods, such as today's International Space Station.

The space agency's detailed Lunar Exploration Objectives, released Monday, provide a soup-to-nuts outline for a 21st-century colonization of a vast and remote new world without air.

It's great news for science fiction buffs and other space enthusiasts who have dreamed for generations of a lunar base.

"This is NASA making plans for a long-term human settlement off the planet. That is a big deal. That's historic, and I think it's great for the country," said George Whitesides, executive director of the National Space Society, a nonprofit advocacy group whose goal is "the creation of a spacefaring civilization."

The 200 U.S. and foreign experts NASA enlisted in April to brainstorm the nonfiction realities of lunar colonization considered the obvious prerequisites - safe places to live and reliable transportation home.

But they also tackled the mundane: how to recycle human and manufactured waste, regenerate the outpost's air and water and establish lunar agriculture to provide food and oxygen for residents.

Members of a lunar colony will also need ground and "air" transportation, fuel depots, power generation and storage, telecommunications, and a lunar positioning and tracking system, planners said.

The NASA document proposes the creation of lunar regions protected from development - lunar parks and reserves - and for the preservation of historic places such as the Apollo landing sites.

"This is the best estimate of the smartest possible people, as of 2006, of what we'll do on the moon," said John Logsdon, director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University and a participant in the deliberations.

The months-long process engaged "potentially everybody who has any credentials to think about these issues," he said, including scientists, engineers, entrepreneurs and representatives of 13 foreign space agencies. "It makes a pretty compelling case for why there's good reason to go back to the moon."

Absent from the discussion, however, was anyone who thinks that sending people back to the moon is a needless, ruinously expensive thing to do.

"The goal was set by President Bush on Jan. 14, 2004," Logsdon said. "This process was not about whether to go back to the moon, but to state for the public - and for NASA - the top-level reasons why we're doing it." It also engaged the experts on what must be done to make it happen.

Although the NASA outline calls for a moon base as early as 2024, it is not a fixed plan.

"This is a planning document against which much more specific plans can be developed, ... a step in a long process," Logsdon said

Still unresolved is the question of whether the United States and other countries that choose to participate can muster and sustain the political will - and the money - over the decades required to carry out the project.

"That's the question that's on everybody's mind," said Logsdon, who spoke from the second Space Exploration Conference, in Houston. "It's a totally serious concern, and there's nothing we can do about it except convince the public and the political community that this is such an obviously correct thing to do ... and develop enough forward momentum that it has the look of a fait accompli by the time the next president gets around to the decision."

NASA's lunar plans, as released, carried no price tag. But estimates run to the hundreds of billions of dollars.

"The fundamental question you have to ask is whether this will be something that can be sustained as being in the public good," said Roger Launius, chairman of the division of space history at the National Air and Space Museum.

"What's the compelling rationale for it? I have not seen that articulated," he said. "Until there's a conviction ... a buy-in by the public that this is a good thing to do, it's probably not going to gain much in the way of funding, if any at all."

Exploration "themes" developed by NASA's experts attempt to answer the question, "Why go?" Their reasons include:

To extend the human presence to the moon.

The pursuit of scientific knowledge about the origins of the Earth, the solar system and the universe.

To test technologies, systems, flight operations and exploration techniques needed to carry and sustain expeditions to Mars.

To promote international partnerships through challenging, peaceful work involving common objectives.

Expansion of Earth's economic activity, with benefits for life on the "home planet."

To engage the public, encourage students and develop "the high-tech work force that will be required to address the challenges of tomorrow."

Of these, Launius regards preparation for a manned Mars mission as the most important, "because it allows us to try to live in a very foreign environment for long periods."

The least enticing rationale, for now, might be the economic lure.

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