Thursday, January 26, 2012

Spaced Out

Newt Gingrich gave a speech in Florida where he indicated that he would oversee the construction of a manned US space platform on the Moon by 2020.

He's hardly the first to consider a return to the moon and go beyond towards Mars and the outer planets. But because this is the Space Coast that has seen lost jobs due to the end of the space shuttle program, they're willing to grasp at straws in the hopes that some jobs could come back as a result of a renewed manned space program. It's also a political ploy in the hopes that he can gain votes over Mitt Romney.

Yet, it's a rather ambitious timeline considering the fact that President George W. Bush first indicated an intention to send a manned mission to Mars and unveiled the Constellation program. That program would provide the heavy-lift capabilities needed to send men to the Moon and then to Mars. President Obama likewise called for a return to the moon, but budgetary concerns have all but scrapped the Constellation program's manned components.

The Ares rocket system has undergone some tests, including the heavy rocket launch into Earth orbit, but no testing has been carried out for the systems designed to send men back to the moon. Even then, those systems were largely based on a combination of space shuttle and Apollo-type technologies (modern variations of the shuttle solid rocket boosters and a J-2X engine based on the engines that powered the Saturn boosters).

How can Gingrich claim that he can return the US to the moon in the number he claims when he's pulling the plug on all kinds of spending.

After all, this is the same Republican party that has called for reductions in spending that will saddle the NOAA with a diminished fleet of satellites critical for weather forecasting.

Indeed, Gingrich has repeatedly claimed that NASA has squandered billions of dollars over the years. His solution to the money crunch is to cut even more fat and to offer incentives to businesses to reach back to the Moon. Incentives still require money, and pose all kinds of questions over what incentives would be sufficient to draw businesses into such risky ventures.

The infrastructure and equipment costs for a project of this size are considerable. The costs for a manned moon mission would still be in the billions of dollars that the country can't seem to allocate for such purposes.

There's no timeline in place for a return of a US manned space program through NASA, though several private programs are in the process of testing equipment that could return Americans to space without having to hop aboard the Russian Soyuz rocket systems. The SpaceX and Dragon systems are undergoing testing, but they are incapable of the heavy-lift missions needed for a manned mission to the Moon.

Those are the two programs that are furthest along in returning Americans to space. Everything else is still on the drawing board.

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