The dark side of the moon is apparently the perfect place for radio astronomy. On Earth, low frequencies are absorbed in the atmosphere and high frequencies are lost in the babble of a cluttered environment. Lacking an atmosphere and shielded from Earth's noise, the long lunar night (about 350 hours) is ideal for detecting NEOs (Near-Earth Objects) – things that could threaten Earth with cataclysmic destruction. Unfortunately, these nefarious things can't be easily detected either from low-Earth orbit or from Earth itself.
The lunar perspective on things makes the moon an ideal outpost for analyzing solar weather – and for many other pure-science assignments as well. In 2006, more than 1,000 scientists collaborated on NASA's celebrated "list of things to do on the moon" – and came up with 180 scientific objectives that require a permanent off-Earth observation platform: tracking the health of Earth's oceans, measuring climate change in real time, developing advances in lunar technology, making breakthroughs in terrestrial medicines, detecting volcanic eruptions on Earth before they occur. And mundane things, too: preparing the moon for lunar tourists, and planting (hydroponic) lunar gardens.
You can make a good case, in other words, for a permanent human colony on the moon – as Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich did when he visited Florida's Space Coast in January. "By the end of my second term," Mr. Gingrich proclaimed to thunderous applause, "we will have the first permanent base on the moon, and it will be American."
Yet, Mr. Gingrich found himself fiercely criticized and rudely ridiculed. Mitt Romney, his Republican protagonist, said he should be "fired" for making such a frivolous commitment in hard times. Comedian David Letterman said Mr. Gingrich was proposing to spend billions of dollars "to study the effect of gravity on double chins." All in all, Mr. Gingrich induced a remarkably dismissive, and distinctly anti-intellectual, response.
In fact, George W. Bush beat Mr. Gingrich to a moon-colony assignment by eight years – announcing his own commitment in 2004. Mr. Bush instructed NASA to establish a permanent human presence on the moon by 2020 – and pursue a longer-term objective of manned flights to Mars. In 2005, with $100-billion in up-front funding, NASA undertook to develop a next-generation spaceship to deliver 20 million tons of equipment to the moon by 2015 and to construct "a habitable lunar outpost" by 2020. This mission remained NASA policy until Barack Obama abruptly cancelled it, along with many of the country's other space objectives, in 2010.
Perhaps Mr. Gingrich ticked people off by the heroic manner of his pronouncement. He made no reference to Mr. Bush – which good manners required. But he did advance two novel amendments to Bush space doctrine. In the first, he proposed that the U.S. grant statehood to the lunar colony when it reached a population of 13,000. In the second, he proposed that huge money prizes be given to scientists or engineers who devised technology that helps a lunar colony get started.
It's a bit early to think of statehood, which implies two Senate seats for the moon colony. And it's not necessary. An American flag will suffice for military concerns – and that will inevitably influence any lunar adventure. As it should. In space, as on Earth, military advantage goes to the country that holds the high ground – and the moon is high ground by anyone's standard. The prize money, though, is a good idea. As Mr. Gingrich noted, Charles Lindberg flew across the Atlantic in pursuit of a $25,000 prize. And Christopher Columbus sailed across the Atlantic in exchange for 10 per cent of the profits.
Mr. Obama quite properly delegated a key private-sector role to the country's emerging space-flight industry. (In 2010, California-based Space Exploration Technologies Corp. became the first private business to put a spacecraft into orbit.) But the President's space program is a messy, down-sized affair. (NASA must now hitch rides on Russian Soyuz rockets.) In his State of the Union speech, Mr. Obama didn't mention space – not as science or as industry or as adventure. From the American perspective, call space the Lost Frontier.
The U.S. will return to space, partly because it must, partly because it should. There are 180 important things to do on the moon – for the sake of a country, yes; but for the sake of a species, too.