13 December 2006
At a time when the U.S. faces historic debt, NASA announced last week its intention to establish a permanent base on the Moon by 2024.
In an interview on December 4 from the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, Scott Horowitz, NASA’s associate administrator for exploration said, “We’re going for a base on the Moon.”
The NASA plan is portrayed as the next phase of the space agency’s exploration agenda after space shuttles are retired in 2010. NASA’s ambitious schedule includes a 2009 test of one of the lunar spaceships, a 2014 manned test flight of the new Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle (CEV) without a Moon landing, and a 2020 flight with a four-astronaut crew that would land on the Moon for a short visit. NASA envisions people living on the Moon for six-month intervals beginning in 2024.
The most likely destination for the permanent base is the Moon's south pole because it's sunlit for three-quarters of the time and has possible resources to mine in areas nearby.
Just to ensure that Congress will support funding for the Moon program, NASA is spreading the operation out to 13 states: Alabama, Arizona, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Louisiana, Maryland, Minnesota, Ohio, Texas, Utah, and Virginia. Pratt & Whitney in West Palm Beach, Florida is now working on the engines for a lunar lander. Bechtel is interested in building structures on the Moon for NASA.
Last year, NASA said it would cost $104 billion just to return to the Moon for a first visit, but has declined to give estimates for the total cost of a permanent base. The Government Accountability Office (GAO) reports that NASA’s procurement plan for the Moon lander risks delivering a product that is late, over budget, and short on capability. This is what happened in the case of the International Space Station (ISS) that was originally supposed to cost taxpayers $10 billion; the price has grown to $100 billion and the station is still not complete.
With space-related spending a low priority for most governments around the world, NASA hopes that by calling the Moon base an international post it will be able to recruit partners to help convince their publics and politicians to buy into the new exploration plan. By inviting some “allies” to share in the creation of the Moon base, the U.S. also hopes to absorb energies from countries like Japan that have announced plans of their own to establish Moon colonies.
The idea of a U.S. base on the Moon is nothing new. In a secret study called “A U.S. Army Study for the Establishment of a Lunar Outpost” published on June 9, 1959, the military maintained that, “The lunar outpost is required to develop and protect potential United States interests on the Moon; to develop techniques in Moon-based surveillance of the Earth and space; in communications relay, and in operations on the surface of the Moon; to serve as a base for exploration of the Moon…Any military operations on the Moon will be difficult to counter by the enemy because of the difficulty of his reaching the Moon, if our forces are already present and have means of countering a landing or of neutralizing any hostile forces that have landed.”
In 1999, John Young, former Gemini, Apollo, and space shuttle astronaut, said that the Moon would also be useful for “planetary defense.”
Recognizing that “control” of the Moon could cause enormous conflict over time, the United Nations created the Moon Treaty in 1979. Much of the Moon Treaty reiterates earlier and internationally-accepted “space law,” particularly the Outer Space Treaty of 1967. Article 11 of the treaty maintains, “The Moon and its natural resources are the common heritage of mankind.” The treaty also prohibits national appropriation, adding the words “by means of use or occupation, or by any other means.” In other words, no military bases and no claims of ownership are allowed. The U.S. never signed the Moon Treaty, and in fact it was only ratified by nine nations.
A 1989 study commissioned by Congress, called "Military Space Forces: The Next 50 Years" reports that whoever holds the Moon militarily will control the "earth-Moon gravity well" and thus will essentially control the front gate to the Moon.
Former Nazi Major General Walter Dornberger, who was in charge of the entireV-1 and V-2 missile operation for Hitler’s Germany, testified before the U.S. Congress in 1958 that America's top space priority ought to be to "conquer, occupy, keep, and utilize space between the Earth and the Moon." (Dornberger, along with 1,500 other top Nazi scientists, was smuggled into the U.S. under Operation Paperclip after WW II. He became Vice-President at Bell Aerospace in New York.)
The Moon has one resource that is getting everyone’s attention. It is helium-3, and, say many space enthusiasts, could be used for fusion power back here on Earth. In a 1995 New York Times op-ed, science writer Lawrence Joseph asks the question: “Will the Moon become the Persian Gulf of the 21st Century?” Joseph maintains that the most important technological question of our time will be “which nation will control nuclear fusion?” He ends his piece by saying, “If we ignore the potential of this remarkable fuel, the nation could slip behind the race for control of the global economy, and our destiny beyond.”
One person who is not ignoring helium-3 on the Moon is former astronaut and engineer Harrison Schmitt who has created a corporation to mine the Moon for it. Schmitt, though, is concerned about obstacles to his grand plans. In a 1998 piece for the industry newspaper Space News called “The Moon Treaty: Not a Wise Idea” he writes, “The strong prohibition on ownership of ‘natural resources’ also causes worry….The mandate of an international regime would complicate private commercial efforts…. The Moon Treaty is not needed to further the development and use of lunar resources for the benefit of humankind...including the extraction of lunar helium-3 for terrestrial fusion power.”
Some scientists predict that one metric ton of helium-3 could be worth over $3 billion. Researchers at the Princeton University Plasma Physics Laboratory have estimated that some one million tons of helium-3 could be obtained from the top layer of the Moon.
If all this turns out to be true and scientifically possible, imagine the gold rush to the Moon and the conflict that could follow in years to come. Who would police the Moon, especially when countries like the U.S. refuse to sign the Moon Treaty that restricts “ownership claims”?
The U.S. Space Command's plan, Vision for 2020, says, "Historically, military forces have evolved to protect national interests and investments — both military and economic. During the rise of sea commerce, nations built navies to protect and enhance their commercial interests....Likewise, space forces will emerge to protect military and commercial national interests and investment in the space medium due to their increasing importance."
I have always been convinced that, by creating offensive space weapons systems, one of the major jobs of the Space Command would be to control who can get on and off planet Earth, thus controlling the “shipping lanes” to the Moon and beyond.
There has long been a military connection to NASA’s Moon missions. In early 1994, NASA launched the Deep Space Program Science Experiment, the first of a series of Clementine technology demonstrations jointly sponsored with the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization (BMDO). The Pentagon announced that data acquired by the spacecraft indicated that there is ice in the bottom of a crater on the Moon, located on the Moon’s south pole — the same venue NASA now envisions as the site for the 2024 permanent base. According to a Pentagon website, “The principal objective of the lunar observatory mission though was to space qualify lightweight sensors and component technologies for the next generation of Department of Defense spacecraft [Star Wars]. The mission used the Moon, a near-Earth asteroid, and the spacecraft’s Interstage Adapter (ISA) as targets to demonstrate sensor performance. As a secondary mission, Clementine returns valuable data of interest to the international civilian scientific sector.”
In the end, the NASA plan to establish permanent bases on the Moon will help the military “control and dominate” access on and off our planet Earth and determine who will extract valuable resources from the Moon in the years ahead.
The taxpayers will be asked to pay the enormously expensive “research and development” costs of this program that in the end will profit the aerospace industry and those corporation like Bechtel that intend to build the bases and extract resources on the Moon.
NASA is not really looking for the “origins of life,” as it tells school children today. Instead, it is laying the groundwork for a new gold rush that will drain our national treasury and enrich the big corporations that now control our government. It is beyond time for the American people to wake up to the shell game underway.
Bruce K. Gagnon is coordinator of the Global Network Against Weapons and Nuclear Power in Space.