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For a colony on moon, technology is the easy part

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Could the establish a moon colony and develop a new propulsion system for going to Mars? All within eight years of a Newt presidency, as Gingrich promised this week?

The answers seem to be technologically yes, economically iffy and politically very difficult.

In proposing an ambitious vision for space, Gingrich stepped into the eternal debate over where the nation’s and Nasa’s priorities should lie. Gingrich spoke little about Nasa’s unmanned missions, which many think produce better science with less money. Inspiration and economic frontiers, not science, drive his long-standing enthusiasm for space.
 

WHAT A LUNAR COLONY WOULD REQUIRE
  • Rockets capable of carrying astronauts and cargo. is developing a new heavy-lift rocket. Newt Gingrich suggests smaller existing rockets could suffice. But smaller rockets would make mission more complicated because moon-lander pieces would have to be assembled in orbit, as was done for the Space Station.
  • A spacecraft that can land on moon. Such a craft does not exist, but no big technology leaps are needed since Nasa did this more than 40 years ago when astronauts landed there. For a permanent base, a larger craft would be needed to ferry pieces.
  • Habitats where the astronauts would live. Years ago, Nasa began preliminary designs but didn’t progress far before it was cancelled. A company, Bigelow Aerospace, says its technology of inflatable modules can be adapted for lunar habitats.
  • Anything built would have to withstand the sharp-edged lunar dust and large temperature swings, from -200 to +200 degrees Fahrenheit.

“I come at space from a standpoint of a romantic belief that it really is part of our destiny,” Gingrich said in his speech on Wednesday. He joked about a legislative proposal, early in his Congressional career, that a moon colony could apply for statehood once its population reached 13,000.

Not surprisingly, at a debate on Thursday, Gingrich’s Republican opponents lambasted a moon colony as a loony, budget-busting idea in a time of fiscal austerity.

Mitt Romney said he thought a moon base would cost hundred of billions of dollars or more. “I’d rather be rebuilding housing here in the US,” he said.

Ron Paul quipped, “I think we maybe should send some politicians up there.”

The smallest hurdle is technology. After all, sending astronauts back to the moon by 2020 and setting up a permanent home there was the goal of the last Republican president, George W. Bush, and Nasa had embarked on developing new rockets and spacecraft to accomplish that. Few doubted that, given enough money and time, Nasa would be able to duplicate its success of more than 40 years ago.

A permanent moon base could adapt technologies used in building the International Space Station. Nasa was also developing an R V-like lunar vehicle where astronauts could drive around the surface of the Moon for weeks at a time.

But money was the problem. When the program, known as Constellation, did not receive as much financing as originally promised, development fell behind, pushing up the price tag. A review of experts concluded that it would cost $150 billion for Constellation to reach its destination close to the original schedule. The instead canceled it.

A new Nasa program similar to Constellation with brand new rockets would be similarly expensive. But a recent Nasa study concluded that the space agency could use smaller existing rockets, coupled with fueling stations in orbit, to reach the Moon within a decade.

A new propulsion system for going to Mars would likely call for reviving old technology — nuclear-powered rocket engines that were originally developed in the 1950s. Nasa has already begun work on nuclear propulsion — nuclear reactors that provide continuous thrust — but lacks the money to finish.

But Gingrich talked of overturning the status quo at Nasa, pushing to work faster, to accept greater risks and let private companies take the lead role.

“It’s not something that should be mocked or should be seen as a remote possibility,” said Michael Gold, director of the Washington office of Bigelow Aerospace, a private space company. “The reason this is both possible and economically viable is that many of the systems and technology, if not all, already exist.”

Bigelow, using technology licensed from Nasa, has plans to launch two inflatable space stations, capable of housing 36 people, and the same technology could be scaled up to provide living quarters on the moon.

Gingrich proposed setting aside about 10 percent of Nasa’s budget for prizes, similar to the $25,000 that Charles Lindbergh won for being the first to fly across the Atlantic, or, more recently, the $10 million X Prize for commercial spacecraft to rise above the 62-mile-high edge of space. Over eight years, this would create a prize pot of more than $14 billion. Gingrich suggested offering a $10 billion prize for the first venture to make a trip to Mars. If no one succeeds, taxpayers pay nothing. If someone does, $10 billion would be cheaper, by a factor of 10 or 100, than any government-run program.

Large aerospace companies like Boeing and Lockheed Martin would likely pass on the prizes — it would be a tough sell to investors when the payoff could be nothing at all — but Gingrich’s allies, including Bob Walker, a former Republican congressman from Pennsylvania, believe that technology billionaires like Jeffrey Bezos, founder of Amazon.com, and Paul Allen, a co-founder of Microsoft, would willingly invest their own money in hopes of fame, if not fortune.

Whether any of these ideas could win enough political support is another question. When Obama called for the cancellation of Constellation, he proposed that Nasa rely much more on commercial companies in the future, echoing many of the same themes that Gingrich is advocating. Gingrich even wrote an opinion piece lauding Obama’s proposed plans.

© 2012 The New York Times News Service

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