Review: The New Moon
by Jeff Foust
|As you would expect from a scientist publishing in an academic press, much of the book covers the science of the Moon. These chapters are among the better ones in the book.|
Wörner’s assessment is shared by many in the international space exploration community—at least, outside of NASA. While the American space agency has sent several robotic missions to the Moon in recent years, human missions to the lunar surface are no longer in the agency’s plans, at least in terms of a “critical path” towards the long-term goal of humans on Mars. “In our budget, we don’t have funding for landing on the Moon,” William Gerstenmaier, NASA associate administrator for human exploration and operations, said at a hearing of the House Science Committee’s space subcommittee last week, when asked by a member if there were plans by the agency for human landings on the Moon.
That’s a disappointment to lunar exploration advocates like Arlin Crotts, a professor of astronomy at Columbia University whose areas of study include the Moon. In The New Moon, he attempts to offer a comprehensive examination of the Moon and justification of it as a destination for humans. This means covering a wide range of topics, from science to history and policy to technology and commercialization. The result is an interesting, but uneven, book.
As you would expect from a scientist publishing in an academic press, much of the book covers the science of the Moon. These chapters are among the better ones in the book, as Crotts lays out the state of knowledge about Moon in a straightforward manner. This includes topics like the formation of the Moon and the search for water there, as well as transient lunar phenomena, short-lived flashes of light seen on the lunar surface (a topic of professional interest to Crotts.)
Crotts, though, is not interested in the science of the Moon. Prior to the science-centric chapters of the book, he examines the history of lunar exploration, and some of the policy issues, both from the early years of the Space Age and more recent ones, including the decision by the Obama Administration to cancel the Constellation Program, with its plans to send humans to the Moon by 2020. He returns to those topics later in the book, discussing the challenges and benefits of human lunar exploration.
These chapters, though, aren’t as strong as the ones on lunar science, and almost have the feel of being edited differently: meandering, filled with distracting sidebars. In once such case, a sentence in the main body of the text starts at the bottom of page 89 but does not conclude until page 94, thanks to several intervening pages of images and a sidebar. And, there are nearly a dozen such sidebars, some running for several pages, in that chapter alone.
|Crotts offers a list of reasons why we should “include the Moon in space exploration before 2050.” His list is familiar: science, exploitation of volatiles and other resources, a vehicle for international cooperation, and preparation for human exploration of Mars.|
His knowledge of policy and commerce is not nearly as strong as it is in science, which shows in the form of various errors and misinterpretations. Some are minor ones with dates and companies, such as conflating United Launch Alliance with a separate Boeing/Lockheed joint venture, United Space Alliance. In several places in the book, he insists that the Obama Administration has promises to reevaluate its space policy in 2015. There are no plans to do so—it would make little sense, given the waning influence the lame-duck administration now has—and it appears Crotts is misunderstanding language in the NASA budget request in early 2010 regarding development of a new heavy-lift rocket (superseded by the decision later in 2010 to develop the Space Launch System.)
Later in the book, he makes a commercial case for lunar exploration by noting that propellant produced from lunar ice deposits could be used for a cislunar tug that, in geosynchronous orbit, could extend the lives of communications satellites. He argues such a system could be profitable servicing 150 satellites per year at $15 million per satellite, but the economics of his argument are sketchy at best. More conventional satellite servicing systems could be in place far sooner, with far less upfront investment, though. In addition, requiring such a large number of customers appears unlikely for the foreseeable future, given the limited interest in satellite life extension efforts to date.
Near the end of the book, Crotts offers a list of reasons why we should “include the Moon in space exploration before 2050.” (By 2050, he argues elsewhere in the book, demand for helium-3 for fusion reactors on Earth will become a major driver for lunar resource exploitation, although given the history of fusion power development that seems like no sure thing.) His list is familiar: science, exploitation of volatiles and other resources, a vehicle for international cooperation, and preparation for human exploration of Mars. He also includes, perhaps more non-traditionally, the search for extraterrestrial artifacts, although it’s difficult to see that as a legitimate driver for major lunar exploration efforts.
In fact, the other, more traditional, rationales for lunar exploration also may be no more compelling. That’s demonstrated by what’s taken place over the last decade. Despite efforts during the Vision for Space Exploration to come up with spreadsheets full of reasons for a return to the Moon, they were not enough to convince the White House and Congress to fund Constellation at the level needed to maintain its schedule, nor compelled the Obama Administration to substantially increase NASA’s budget, as the Augustine Committee concluded was needed to keep Constellation on track.
There are lots of reasons for human lunar exploration, as The New Moon notes. But, outside of the space community, there’s little interest in supporting it to the degree needed to make it feasible on anything other than the longest timescales: the public may support the general concept of it, but are not willing to back that up with the significant additional funding needed to make it possible. Until the space community can make a better case for humans on the Moon, such efforts will move along slowly, at best.