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Could billionaires in space bring science back to the moon? | COMMENTARY

July 16, 2021 (Walt Handelsman, Tribune Content Agency)
July 16, 2021 (Walt Handelsman, Tribune Content Agency)

The recent forays into the mesosphere by billionaires Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos, of Virgin Records and Amazon fame, respectively, may indeed usher in a new era of space tourism, albeit for very wealthy individuals. Within a decade, these thrill rides piercing the atmosphere for a few minutes could lead to trips to simple, inflatable orbiting space hotels, where occupants can spend a week to a month playing in zero gravity.

Similarly, as space access becomes cheaper, companies will turn to space-based manufacturing to create useful products in zero gravity, such as novel crystals and semiconductors. Solar panels could be deployed, as well, with collected energy beamed down to Earth.

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What, then, is NASA’s purpose in low-earth orbit? Very little, it seems, aside from maintaining its own satellites placed there by commercial rockets. The ISS, orbiting a mere 250 miles above Earth, may provide a certain element of awesomeness for some. But it has outlived its purpose. And at $150 billion to build and at least $4 billion annually to maintain, the ISS has been and continues to be a strain on the NASA budget.

Why not hand over the ISS to commercial interests and apply that annual budget to a permanent Moon base? While sounding sacrilegious in some circles, governments — primarily the U.S. and Russia — pioneering the technology of rocketry and orbital maneuvering over the course of 60 years to enable a commercial, low-earth-orbit space industry should be viewed as a success.

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Meanwhile, there is much work needed on the Moon to enable — decades from now — commercial mining, lunar tourism and other activities. We could start today with international bases modeled after what we have in Antarctica, where rotating scientists and engineers venture for a few months per year, and a separate hardy crew will overwinter and spend a year or two.

We could conduct science on the Moon that is far more practical than that we perform on the ISS, namely the effect of low gravity on human health. (We know zero gravity is bad; but the future of humankind in space will be either in the low gravity of the Moon or Mars or in artificial gravity.) The Moon would provide practice for visiting Mars, as well.

NASA has plans to return humans to the Moon by 2024 in what is called the Artemis program. That 2024 target date, though, set by the Donald Trump administration, is a time frame most space experts have deemed impractical, even if Mr. Trump was to have a second term as president. With White House pressure now lifted, NASA can forgo this myopic flag-planting mission and instead, together with other nations, plan for sustainable scientific bases on the Moon.

We should postpone sending humans to the Moon for at least 10 years and instead focus on infrastructure to enable sustainability: communication satellites in cislunar space between the Earth and moon; robotic landers capable of liberating oxygen locked to minerals in the lunar “regolith” ground cover (for us to breathe); diggers capable of harvesting ice frozen in shaded craters; inflatable habitats to be covered robotically with regolith to protect future inhabitants against radiation; and grow chambers to produce vegetation and to recycle carbon dioxide into oxygen.

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With infrastructure in place, humans could land lightly in the early 2030s and live off the land.

Some argue that China’s lunar ambitions will trigger a new space race, as if that’s a good thing. However, the space race of the 1960s was a tremendous tax on the U.S. budget, nearly $200 billion in today’s dollars. And as simply a race to beat the Soviets, this madness provided no means to establish permanence on the Moon. Yet working with China and other spacefaring nations, we have the opportunity to establish true international spirit on the Moon as we have done successfully in Antarctica.

The billionaires and their companies — Mr. Branson’s Virgin Galactic, Mr. Bezos’ Blue Origin and Tesla founder Elon Musk’s SpaceX — have demonstrated that near space is firmly within reach of commercial enterprise. It just might be the nudge NASA and its international partners needed to get out of the International Space Station and onto the Moon.

Christopher Wanjek (wanjek@gmail.com) is a science writer and author of “Spacefarers: How Humans Will Settle the Moon, Mars, and Beyond” (Harvard University Press, 2020).

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