Newt Gingrich’s ideas about the moon may not be so loony. The contender for the Republican presidential nomination promised to establish a permanent lunar base by 2020 with as many as 13,000 people that would eventually seek statehood. Setting aside the colonial implications of the idea, a modestly manned base focused on natural resource extraction isn’t a totally nutty ambition. It might even cost less than another Middle East war.
John F. Kennedy’s Apollo program, begun in 1961, reached the moon in eight years and cost $25-billion (U.S.), the equivalent of $192-billion today. That’s a quarter of the Iraq war’s cost. Of course, Apollo was carried out before an explosion of safety and environmental legislation. A moon project today would need extensive exemptions to achieve Apollo’s aggressive timetable and relatively contained budget. Since nuclear spacecraft taking off from Florida would probably be unacceptable, it would also be constrained by smaller advances in propulsion technology since the 1960s.
Further geological exploration is also needed to determine whether the moon offers resources that could be profitably harvested. If the current payload cost, offered by Masten Space Systems, of $250 per kilogram for launch into Earth orbit is taken as a benchmark for lunar transport within a decade, then commodities like gold, silver, helium and rare earths such as dysprosium could profitably be mined if extraction techniques without oxygen or water are feasible. Conversely, mining the moon’s large known deposits of magnesium and titanium would be economically unattractive.
But there’s a legal, not just technological, snag. The 1967 Open Space Treaty prohibits governments or companies from exploiting celestial resources, claiming them as the “common heritage of mankind.” This effectively prevents commercial extra-terrestrial activity. For any mining of the moon’s bounty, the treaty would need to be revised or replaced on a case-by-case basis in an arrangement analogous to the 1959 Antarctic Treaty, which divided the territory into spheres of influence.
China is planning to land a rover on the moon in 2013, and targeting possible human settlement by 2025. If it is alone in its exploration efforts, China might feel unconstrained by the 1967 Treaty. Mr. Gingrich isn’t likely to be the next U.S. president, but whoever occupies the Oval Office may find his moon talk a realistic agenda item before too long.