In Florida last week, Newt Gingrich asserted that “by the end of my second term, we will have the first permanent base on the moon.” Newt has a long legacy of passionate optimism about the space program, insisting that space honeymoons to an interplanetary Hilton are just a couple decades away and floating the idea of gigantic orbital mirrors to light streets and highways and to extend the growing season for certain crops. In Thursday’s debate, Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum shot down the idea on cost grounds, with Romney speculating that it would cost hundreds of billions or even trillions of dollars.
But the idea of a base on the moon isn’t as ridiculous as it might sound: The Bush administration proposed the Constellation program to return to the moon by 2020 and establish a permanent presence, which was projected to cost as much as $230 billion.
As Rand Simberg notes over at PJ Media, and in a February 2012 Reason piece, there should be ways to accomplish such goals without spectacular costs, since the technology is certainly there. Private space initiatives, particularly those prompted by prizes for particular accomplishments, have been able to make big strides in space travel at much lower costs than the government has indicated. The Falcon 9 rocket, for instance, was produced by the company SpaceX, and cost $300–400 million, compared to NASA estimates of $1.7–4.0 billion. That said, it isn’t clear that any private group would be willing to provide the necessary finance for the lunar project, or that such public-to-private cost savings would emerge for such a large project.
Newt also suggested that the moon could become the 51st state, but this would require withdrawal from the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, which explicitly prevents national claims in outer space.
While private funding and development does seem to be the consensus way forward for space travel (even President Obama has endorsed the model), the idea that federal policy could produce such successes as a lunar base in the near term, even with private-sector help, still seems somewhat outlandish.