The Moon may have more water on it than we thought, according to several new studies based on analysis of a recent NASA experiment. This leads the Wall Street Journal to speculate that the finding “may bolster the case for a manned base on the lunar surface.”
So, should we boldly go where some men have already gone?
No, no, no.
The water finding sounds like a classic case of over hyping an interesting but not game changing discovery. Because even given this news, the moon is still very, very dry. Indeed, another recent study of the moon “indicate[s] that the moon contains just one–ten-thousandth to one–hundred-thousandth the water that the Earth’s interior does.”
But for the sake of argument, let’s assume that the moon has a decent amount of water in a particular spot to make it possible to set up a lunar base. This still doesn’t answer the question of to what end and at what cost (and what benefit) we would want to do so. Of course, when I say we, I really should say the U.S. taxpayer since money for such a project would no doubt have to come from the public sphere. And the cost would be quite large (easily over $100 billion) and certainly a luxury item we should not be purchasing in this economic environment (or any, to be honest, given that the only legitimate rationale for state-sponsored space exploration would be its ability to directly contribute to national defense or other public goods [like the environment] in a manner in which the benefits clearly exceeded its costs [and this excludes some baloney, non-quantifiable national prestige rationale]).
As might be expected, the Cato Institute has some sensible words on the subject of NASA: here, here, and here. If you don’t want to believe these guys, see what Martin Rees, professor of cosmology and astrophysics at Cambridge University, has said about manned space flight: “The moon landings were an important impetus to technology but you have to ask the question, what is the case for sending people back into space? I think that the practical case gets weaker and weaker with every advance in robotics and miniaturisation. It’s hard to see any particular reason or purpose in going back to the moon or indeed sending people into space at all.”
Fortunately, President Obama has been eminently sensible on the moon, having already scrapped the moon landing project that had been in the works for some time. Indeed, the announcement of this decision provided what might be my favorite – and most refreshing – quotation from our 44th President: “Now, I understand that some believe that we should attempt a return to the surface of the Moon first, as previously planned. But I just have to say pretty bluntly here: We’ve been there before.” I just wish he had scrapped most of the NASA missions, turned over what could be justified on national defense/public goods grounds to the Department of Defense and other agencies, and sold whatever was left over to private industry. Now that would be change I could believe in!