Thursday, January 26, 2012

Back to the Moon?

I put this over on the political blog but on reflection, it's not really that political.

Yesterday Newt Gingrich made some waves by suggesting that we could have a permanent moon base by the end of his second term. This was widely laughed off as Newt being crazy. Put aside considerations as to whether or not going back to the moon would be a good idea, is it technically possible? This is from last month's 'Astronomy' magazine. (I couldn't find the article online so I'm retyping this, any typos are mine.)

For example, SpaceX has already announced plans to build a heavy-lift rocket called the Falcon Heavy. It will be capable of putting more than 50 tons into orbit, and is financed from the profits and publicity earned from its Dragon supply missions to the Iss as well as SpaceX's other commercial satellite launches. Using Falcon Heavy, the company could launch Bigelow Aerospace's BA 330 space station as well as the additional supplies and rocket engines needed to take that module beyond Earth orbit and to the Moon.
Even more significant, Falcon Heavy and BA 330 will cost far less and be ready to fly much sooner than NASA's current proposal to build its own heavy0lift rocket to launch its Orion capsule for missions beyond Earth orbit. The first manned test flight of the NASA-built rocket, announced in September 2011, is not expected until 2021 and may cost somewhere between $25 and $60 billion to develop. In contrast, SpaceX built Falcon 9 for just $300 million and went from a blank sheet of paper to its first launch in only 4 years. Because Falcon Heavy is essentially three Falcon 9 first stages strapped together, the development cost for it will likely be as inexpensive and as straightforward as it was for Falcon 9.
Thus, not only would the private rocket be an affordable way for many rich tourists to get to the Moon, but it also would be a far more cost-effective method for the United States, or any other nation, to get there. All NASA would have to add is a lunar lander, something America already has experience building.
Keep in mind that this is from last month, published well before Gingrich said anything. It certainly doesn't seem like eight years is an insurmountable timeline. I don't know how much longer it would take to design a permanent base but this is a problem that people have been working on for literally decades. It sure seems like if we had the will we could do it.

No comments: