Newt Gingrich is shooting for the moon, and while everyone else seems to be laughing, he certainly isn’t. Ever since he promised last week to put a permanent base on the moon by 2020, he’s been the target of mockery.
But the skeptics can quiet down because a lunar colony, even so soon, may not be all that unlikely.
“It’s very difficult to keep large-scale projects like that going forward over several administrations,” said Doug Rogers, physics professor at Northwestern University, “But technically it’s feasible given enough money, but money is in short supply right now.”
Gingrich isn’t the first to propose a lunar colony. In 1959, the U.S. Army laid out plans for one with Project Horizon. The Air Force gave it another whirl two years later with the Lunex Project, but neither project ever to anything.
In 1981, then-Rep. Gingrich proposed legislation to make the moon the 51st state. Now, presidential candidate Gingrich, who couldn't be reached for comment Tuesday, doesn’t appear to have abandoned the ambition.
“By the end of my second term,” he said at a political event in Florida last week, “we will have the first permanent base on the moon and it will be American.”
Whether the base is even possible depends on several factors, among them funding, private and public, as well as public support.
“It would not be appropriate for NASA to respond,” said NASA spokesman Michael Cabbage when asked to comment on Gingrich’s moon base plans.
Rogers said he was intrigued by the idea, comparing the prospect of a lunar base or colony to the efforts in the 1960s to reach the moon. Now, he said, projects of that scope are much more collaborative, requiring the U.S. to work with its allies.
“What pushed us to go to the moon the first time was a competition with the Soviet Union, so money was no object,” Rogers said, “It was winning at all costs.”
Eight years may seem like a short time to return to the moon and create the colony Gingrich hopes will become the 51st state. But Bernard Foing, executive director of International Lunar Exploration Working Group, said, speaking only for himself, that Americans declared their intentions to reach the moon and got there in 10 years.
“The world was excited as I was when the person landed, but it was a program of 10 years where there had been an investment with engineers and public support,” he said.
With public support, he said, a lunar colony could encourage future careers in science and investment in new technology, in the same way the moon landing inspired widespread interest in space in the 1960s.
Foing compared the moon to a history book and said a lunar base would make possible studies of the origin of life on Earth as well as what the future holds for this planet.
“Also a place where you can test technologies that can be used later to the benefit of mankind on Earth,” he said, “This is some place where can look at the challenge of living outside of the planet of origin.”
President Bush in 2004 declared intentions for Americans to return to the moon in 2020 as a first step toward going to Mars. In 2010, President Obama nixed immediate plans to return to the moon, but promised NASA funding for manned missions to Mars in the next 20 years.
Rogers said that a lunar base would be a jumping off point for a mission to Mars. The moon, he said, is a trip that lasts a few days whereas a round trip to Mars could take up to three years. Moon colonists would have to learn how to live sustainably, and provide themselves with social outlets and daily enrichment.
“Personally I think it’s an exciting possibility,” he said, “but I think there needs to be a real plan for a stepping stone after that.”