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A military base on the Moon—a plot point in a new TV series—was something seriously studied by the US Air Force at the beginning of the Space Age.

Nuking the site from orbit: when the Air Force wanted a base on the Moon

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The new Apple TV+ show “For All Mankind” premiered November 1. The premise of the show is an alternative history of the space program after the Soviet Union beats the United States to landing a man on the Moon. Without giving away any spoilers, one of the subplots of the series is that in the wake of this event, President Nixon decides to establish a military base on the Moon. This storyline, like many in the show, is based upon actual history. Before the Apollo program, both the US Army and the US Air Force investigated the potential of military Moon bases. A new book from Apogee covers the Army’s Project Horizon, but aspects of that story remain classified, as do most of the Air Force’s studies. Some of that information, however, has been released.

Rocket blitzes from the Moon

The concept of the Moon as a strategic base apparently dates at least back to 1948 and an article by Robert S. Richardson titled “Rocket Blitz From the Moon” in the mass-market Collier’s magazine. The article was beautifully illustrated by famed space artist Chesley Bonestell. In one Bonestell painting a bullet-shaped rocket (illogically equipped with large aerodynamic fins) is blasting off from a lunar crater. Another rocket stands prepped in the background and a lunar base is tucked into the side of a mountain. In the next illustration—probably Bonestell’s most dramatic painting ever—Manhattan has been blasted with at least three atomic bombs.

One of the characters in the movie Destination Moon explains why a lunar base is necessary: “There is absolutely no way to stop an attack from outer space. The first country that can use the Moon for the launching of missiles will control the Earth. That, gentlemen, is the most important military fact of this century.”

Richardson’s article focused primarily on the physics of the Moon: the low gravity, the lack of air, the trajectory and velocity calculations for firing rockets at the Earth. Rather than advocate that the United States should build a lunar rocket base, Richardson warned that another country could undertake a secret project to develop a lunar base and achieve strategic surprise against the United States. He did not clearly explain why the Moon would be a good place for basing missiles other than its presumed safety from Earth observation, and he noted that it would take at least a day for a rocket to reach Earth with its warhead. Considering that there were other means of basing long-range strategic weapons that did not involve the massive cost of a space program and a lunar base, Richardson’s idea was fanciful at best. But Collier’s was a large circulation magazine, not a science fiction pulp, and this short article certainly reached a big audience and probably fired some imaginations.

Richardson was not the only person writing about the possibilities of using space as a platform for attacking Earth. Robert Heinlein co-wrote a non-fiction article in August 1947, also for Collier’s, called “Flight into the Future.” Heinlein and his co-author, US Navy Captain Caleb Laning, suggested basing atomic weapons in orbit, and Heinlein later used this idea in his book Space Cadet. The 1950 movie Destination Moon, which Heinlein co-wrote, also echoed a similar theme (see “Heinlein’s ghost (part 1)”, The Space Review, April 9, 2007). One of the characters in the movie explains why a lunar base is necessary: “There is absolutely no way to stop an attack from outer space. The first country that can use the Moon for the launching of missiles will control the Earth. That, gentlemen, is the most important military fact of this century.” (Decades later, Allen Steele would explore the idea of a missile base on the Moon in his novel The Tranquility Alternative.)

In December 1956, the commander of Air Research and Development Command, Lieutenant General Thomas S. Power, established a Guided Missile and Space Vehicle Working Group. Three months after Sputnik, in December 1957, that group issued a “Special Report Concerning Space Technology” that laid out an “ARDC Five Year Projected Astronautics Program” including a “Manned Lunar-Based Intelligence System,” with a projected first flight in 1967. By January 1958 the Air Force initiated Program 499, a “Lunar Base System” and by March the Air Force was formalizing plans for a “Manned Lunar Base Study.”

It did not take the Air Force leaders long to start talking about their plans in public. In January 1958, US Air Force Brigadier General Homer A. Boushey spoke in front of the Aero Club of Washington, DC. Boushey’s speech was reported in U.S. News & World Report under the title “Who Controls the Moon Controls the Earth.” Boushey justified the Moon base in terms of national security using language that could have been taken straight from Heinlein’s Destination Moon eight years before: “The Moon provides a retaliation base of unequaled advantage,” Boushey said. “If we had a base on the Moon, the Soviets must launch an overwhelming nuclear attack toward the Moon from Russia two to two-and-one-half days prior to attacking the continental U.S. first, only and inevitably to receive, from the Moon—some 48 hours later—sure and massive destruction.”

Boushey was not the only Air Force officer publicly calling for a Moon base to provide retaliatory capability. In early March 1958, Air Force Lieutenant General Donald L. Putt spoke before the House Armed Services Committee about various possible responses to the Soviet Sputnik launch, including a base on the Moon. According to a Time magazine report, “Since the Moon’s gravitation is only one-sixth as strong as the Earth’s, it should be easier to shoot at the Earth from the Moon than in the other direction. The Moon’s lack of atmosphere might make it possible to catapult Earth-bound missiles out of deep shafts. Both the Moon base and its weapon launchers could be on the far side of the Moon, forever invisible from the Earth, but all of the turning Earth could be examined from the Moon with telescopes.” Putt also made a suggestion that seems amazing when looking back on 50 years of space history: “We should not regard control of the Moon as the ultimate means of ensuring peace among the Earth nations,” Putt said. “It is only a first step toward stations on planets far more distant… from which control over the Moon might then be exercised. Nevertheless, the Moon appears to be of such significance that we should not let another nation establish a military capability there ahead of us.”

Avoiding a lunar base gap

Perhaps as a result of Lieutenant General Putt’s advocacy, in the fall of 1958 the advanced systems studies office of the Air Force Ballistic Missiles Division in Los Angeles commissioned several studies by defense contractors to evaluate the strategic value of manned spaceflight. These were “Systems Requirement” studies. SR-181 was called the Strategic Earth System Study (or alternatively, the Global Surveillance System), SR-182 the Strategic Interplanetary Study, and SR-183 the Lunar Observatory Study. All three of the studies apparently included a nuclear weapons component. SR-183 eventually gave birth to SR-192, a Lunar Strategic System study. That’s not where it ended, either. A declassified 1963 report lists several other studies as well: SR-17527, the Military Test Space Station; SR-17532, the Permanent Satellite Base and Logistic Study; SR-79503, the Strategic Orbital System, SR-79814, the Space Logistics, Maintenance and Rescue System; SR-79821, the Earth Satellite Weapon System; and SR-79822, the Advanced Earth Satellite Weapon System. Clearly the Air Force had a lot of people looking at various projects for putting humans in space for “strategic” purposes, as well as orbiting nuclear weapons. Dr. Strangelove would have been orgasmic.

Putt also made a suggestion that seems amazing when looking back on 50 years of space history: “We should not regard control of the Moon as the ultimate means of ensuring peace among the Earth nations,” he said. “It is only a first step toward stations on planets far more distant… from which control over the Moon might then be exercised.”

Unfortunately for historians, none of these studies has been found and released, nor has anyone discovered significant supporting documentation like memos, letters, and other paperwork associated with the studies—all of these references (the ones in quotes above), with the exception of the magazine articles quoting Generals Boushey and Putt, tend to be footnotes or citations in other reports. Researching the history of early Air Force lunar base studies becomes a circular chase where every article refers to some other article that refers to another article that, at best, refers to a list of documents or studies, not the actual documents or studies themselves.

The Lunar Observatory Study summary report was declassified in the 1970s, but is only nine pages long and lacks many details. These other reports may still exist somewhere, buried in dusty government archives next to the Ark of the Covenant or even in the garage of some retired Air Force officer who once illegally took a copy home. For the most part historians simply know that they existed, but almost nothing about what they addressed. The most likely explanation for their demise is that they were the victim of Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, who took over the Pentagon in 1961. McNamara’s whiz kids applied systems analysis and economic models to weapons systems and many of the Air Force’s pie-in-the-sky ideas were soon canceled for the simple reason that they were incredibly expensive ways of doing things that really did not require doing. Although McNamara has a legacy overshadowed by Vietnam, in the early 1960s he managed to kill a number of dubious and expensive Air Force programs, and it seems probable that the military lunar base was one of them.

It is also apparent that there was little or no discussion of lunar missile bases in the highly active deterrence theory community at the time these Air Force studies were underway. By the late 1950s, the RAND Corporation was producing voluminous studies on deterrence theory, including the need for survivable nuclear forces capable of riding out a first strike and smashing the Soviet Union into dust. Some of RAND’s most famous thinkers—the “wizards of Armageddon” to use Fred Kaplan’s immortal phrase, men like Bernard Brodie, Herman Kahn, Henry Kissinger, and Albert Wohlstetter—were writing publicly about deterrence theory. Lunar bases equipped with nuclear weapons do not appear in any of this literature. The late, great Brodie’s seminal book Strategy in the Missile Age, first published in 1959, makes no mention of the Moon as a missile base. Thus, it appears that the Air Force’s strategic space studies had no discernible impact on Cold War nuclear deterrence and are little more than a footnote in Cold War history.

But their impact on the American space program—and thus, space history—may be greater than historians have recognized. The fact that these Air Force SR studies have not been found has apparently distorted the historical record of early American lunar planning. A similar Army study, known as Project Horizon and conducted at the same time, has been declassified and attracted much more attention from historians. But the Air Force studies involved many more companies and personnel and lasted over a longer period of time, and it is possible that they have had a subtle legacy that has been overlooked by space historians.

A lonely ambassador and keen observer

There is some information on the Air Force’s SR-183 study effort in the form of detailed notes taken by NASA official Edwin P. Hartman, who attended a mid-point briefing on the lunar study. Hartman’s records are preserved in the National Archives regional office for southern California at Laguna Niguel, south of Los Angeles.

Starting in the early 1950s, Hartman was the head of the Western Support Office of the National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics (NACA), which was absorbed into NASA when it was created in fall 1958. Hartman’s job was to serve as the representative of NACA and then NASA in southern California. NACA conducted aeronautics research and did not buy much hardware, and so Hartman was in many ways a lonely ambassador representing NACA’s interests in southern California, as well as the organization’s eyes and ears on the West Coast. As NASA increased in size and began to sign hardware development contracts with aerospace companies in California, the agency increased its presence on the West Coast and Hartman’s role changed. By the early 1960s the agency needed representatives at the factories that were building the Apollo spacecraft and the Saturn rockets. But during the 1950s Hartman was pretty much the sole agency representative, traveling to various aerospace companies and obtaining briefings on their work and then reporting back to his bosses in Washington, such as NACA director Hugh Dryden.

Hartman was a keen and meticulous observer and his reports from this era are a treasure trove for many reasons, including the fact that so many corporate records have never been preserved. Hartman reported not only on what projects the companies were undertaking, but also their key figures and personalities and even the companies’ financial situations and organizational and other problems. Although his memos represent his personal point of view, and sometimes humorously demonstrate the difficulties for an airplane expert to adapt to the new subject of spaceflight (for instance, referring to “turns” around the Earth instead of “orbits”), in some cases history has revealed that Hartman’s observations were extremely astute.

Charity work with taxpayer money

In late March of 1959, Hartman attended several briefings at the Ballistic Missile Division in Los Angeles conducted by industry teams on the results of their studies concerning SR-183, the lunar systems or lunar observatory study. According to Hartman, there were four industry teams, consisting of North American Aviation’s Missile Development Division and RCA; Boeing, Westinghouse, and Aerojet Nucleonics; Republic Aviation and Systems Corp. of America; and United Aircraft Corp. and Minneapolis-Honeywell. The Douglas Missiles Division participated on its own. Somewhat surprisingly, Lockheed, which then had the most active space program, the WS-117L reconnaissance satellite program funded by the Air Force, was not a participant. According to a 1992 history paper by Lockheed employee R.D. Allen, the company did bid on the studies, but was apparently not selected. By late 1958 Ballistic Missile Division officers were concerned that Lockheed was overextended and so they may have banned the company from participating in the study effort.

Given the fact that the teams had only six months and virtually no experience at all in spaceflight, it is not surprising that they often proposed some rather unrealistic, even fanciful ideas. Some of their ideas are still around even today, and may be no more possible now than they were half a century ago.

The briefings occurred over several days, and Hartman missed the final briefing by United Aircraft and Minneapolis-Honeywell and therefore did not report on their work. These companies were presenting their results at the midpoint of the one-year study. After these briefings, information on the study leaked (or was officially given) to Aviation Week magazine, as happened again in September 1959 when the study was concluded. But Aviation Week lacked the detail that Hartman provided about the Air Force effort in his extensive notes. The Army Project Horizon study was apparently initiated in March 1959, only shortly before the Aviation Week article appeared, but the decision to finish the Project Horizon study before the rival Air Force finished its study was undoubtedly due to a desire to beat the Air Force to the punch.

There is conflicting information about whether the studies were funded by the Air Force or undertaken using company money. According to the final summary report produced a year later, three of the individual companies were funded whereas the others were “voluntary.” In his notes, Hartman implied that all of the teams used their own money for what must have been expensive studies involving a lot of people. “The companies that undertake SR studies for the Air Force do so largely at their own expense,” he explained. But Hartman also had a rather blunt insight into what a “voluntary study” really meant: “As the income of most aircraft companies comes mainly from the government, it is obvious that the studies are paid for by the government with the cost appearing as overhead charges on military contracts,” he wrote. The fact that at least part of the work was not directly paid by the government may explain why these SR studies have so far eluded historians—very little paper in the form of final reports may have actually made its way into the hands of government officials, and what did was probably stamped as industry proprietary.

“The objective of SR-183,” Hartman wrote, “is to determine a sound and economical approach for the establishment of a manned intelligence observatory on the Moon. The Moon is considered a favorite vantage point from which to observe enemy actions in space. Also, because of its low gravity, the Moon is believed (by some people) to be a good platform for launching defensive vehicles.”

Based upon Hartman’s description of the four industry briefings he attended, it is clear that these studies clearly started with each team suggesting multiple ideas about what the Air Force could do on the Moon, determining the technical aspects of them, and trying to flesh out the basics of how to start a lunar base project. Given the fact that the teams had only six months and virtually no experience at all in spaceflight—certainly not human spaceflight—it is not surprising that they often proposed some rather unrealistic, even fanciful ideas. Some of their ideas are still around even today, and may be no more possible now than they were half a century ago.

But a funny thing also happened on the way to the Moon: the thought experiment of a Moon base highlighted the superiority of other ways to do things in space. The contractors concluded that many missions really could be better accomplished from different locations, like geosynchronous orbit. Much like today, it appears as if government officials picked the location and then asked contractors to figure out what, if anything, they could do there, rather than figuring out what they wanted to do, and then deciding the best location for doing it.

lunar base
An illustration from Hartman’s notes about Boeing’s proposed lunar base.

Rockets on the Moon

“There is not much of a general nature to be said about the presentations except that they all seemed a little fantastic,” Hartman wrote in an introductory memo. “The Douglas presentation was the briefest, most pessimistic and most down to Earth—if a lunar venture may be so described.” He ranked the Boeing and Republic briefings the lowest and stated that “all of the presentations suffered greatly from a lack of basic knowledge about the subject discussed. In them the meager knowledge that exists was over-extrapolated. Fanciful concepts were described which, aside from the intellectual stimulation they produced, are probably of little value.” Nevertheless, he thought that the overall effort was worthwhile because the studies did lead the companies to start thinking about various space missions.

Although the study focused on using the Moon as an observation base, Boeing, like several other contractors, advocated basing nuclear missiles on the Moon in underground silos. In his memo to NASA Headquarters, Hartman drew a crude sketch of Boeing’s underground base, which included a spiral staircase down from the surface, two levels of crew quarters, and 50- and 200-inch (125- and 500-centimeter) telescopes that could be adapted for infrared surveillance and communications. The base would also have a radio telescope and surface vehicles. The base might even be excavated through bombardment from space, which Hartman euphemistically called “hard landing.”

Boeing’s schedule was to “probe” the Moon from 1958 to 1961, explore the surface with humans from 1963 until 1973, and begin site preparation and construction by the mid-1960s, with the goal of beginning operations by the end of the decade. In Boeing’s plan, 116 men would reach the Moon by 1973, and the effort would cost $8 billion by the end of 1965 and $30 billion by the end of 1967, with peak spending of about $10 billion that year.

None of this was remotely like what eventually happened. The Apollo program ultimately cost approximately $24 billion through the early 1970s. For approximately the same amount that Boeing projected, Apollo landed a dozen men on the Moon, not ten times that many, and never seriously considered the establishment of a base under the lunar surface.

Many of them suggested that the Moon’s surface was a poor base for observations of the Earth and that Earth orbit was superior. Discounting all of the problems of working on the Moon, the harsh fact was that the Moon was too far away to be useful.

However, not all of Boeing’s speculation was outlandish. The company recommended that for astronomical observations the Air Force could install a 240-inch (610-centimeter) focal length telescope inside a large airplane such as a B-52. The plane would carry the telescope high above much of the Earth’s atmosphere. NASA flew an infrared telescope aboard an airplane in 1964 and then the dedicated Kuiper Airborne Observatory starting in 1974, followed by the SOFIA observatory utilizing a Boeing 747. Another Boeing suggestion was the possibility of using space tethers to boost satellites into higher orbits. Although NASA tested tether technology in the 1990s, the agency abandoned it.

North American concluded that surveillance of the Earth was the chief value of a lunar observatory and that possible missions for a lunar base included signals intelligence collection, television and photo surveillance of the Earth, and navigation aids and communications relay. But the company’s engineers admitted that observation of the Earth was challenging from such distances. For instance, detecting a Soviet ICBM silo with 90 percent certainty required a photographic system with one-meter resolution, demanding a truly massive telescope on the lunar surface. The company’s engineers figured that a human circumlunar flight could be mounted by 1962 with a manned landing by 1963 or 1964. Much of the team’s presentation consisted of identifying the steps required to achieve those goals, such as the liftoff thrust of the rocket vehicles and the radiation threat on the Moon. The team concluded that the proper approach to base design was “wide open,” which Hartman translated to mean “no one knows anything about it.”

The Douglas group, like Boeing, also concluded that military intelligence and reconnaissance from the Moon, including “aid in facilitating retaliatory strikes,” were the primary missions for a military lunar base. Douglas also noted that the Moon could be used as the site of a spinning liquid mercury mirror. Such a mirror, the company claimed, would be easy to carry to the Moon and would not be affected by meteorites, but it could not change its observation direction. According to the Douglas study, the advantages of the Moon over satellites were that it was a more stable platform, a harder target to attack, possessed exploitable natural resources, and had a gravitational field that would provide a more natural environment for humans.

Douglas’ engineers proposed that the basic element of their Moon base would be a telescoping series of pie-shaped wedges that folded into a wedge-shaped capsule for transportation. This would then open into a torus-shaped igloo with an inner bag to hold pressure. Douglas later proposed that basic design as an Earth-orbiting space station, but its greatest legacy was when a company scale model was acquired by the Star Trek television production team in the latter 1960s and turned into the famed K-7 space station for the episode “The Trouble with Tribbles.” (see “Boldly going: Star Trek and spaceflight”, The Space Review, November 28, 2005)

Unlike North American’s team, Douglas concluded that signals intelligence from the lunar surface seemed “far-fetched” (in fact, the United States was already evaluating Soviet terrestrial signals that had bounced off the Moon’s surface). Similarly, observing ICBM launches on the Earth from the Moon was not possible, but a satellite in a 24-hour (i.e. geosynchronous) orbit could see them with an infrared telescope. As a matter of fact, it was precisely this approach that was developed by the Air Force a decade later, although it was TRW and not Douglas that built the first geosynchronous missile warning satellite, launched in the early 1970s. (In the 2011 movie Apollo 18, the astronauts were reportedly sent to the Moon to install military sensors for looking at Earth. See: “Defending Apollo,” The Space Review, September 26, 2011.)

Of all the contractor teams, Republic was the only one to declare that prestige was a primary reason for establishing a lunar base. The military missions included weather observation and monitoring of enemy movements, satellite attack, retaliatory bombardment, signals intelligence collection, space vehicle detection and tracking, scientific and experimental use, and a staging base for interplanetary missions. But Republic also noted that the Moon was so far from Earth that it was not an ideal observation platform. A 75- to 100-centimeter mirror on the lunar surface could observe features on the Earth about 300 meters wide, whereas a similar mirror in geosynchronous orbit could resolve objects about ten times better. Like Douglas, Republic concluded that signals intelligence from the Moon was impractical. Republic concluded that of all the missions, the establishment of a retaliatory base appeared to be the most promising, echoing Boeing and Douglas.

Republic suggested that the best plants to grow on the Moon were corn, peanuts, soybeans, and lettuce. Water could possibly be extracted from rocks and volcanic ash. But Republic did not underplay the difficulties of a lunar base, noting that developing a closed ecological system would be a major engineering challenge. Communications would also be problematic because the line of sight was short due to the high surface curvature, and relay satellites would be required. Because communications bandwidth would be limited, most data should be processed on the Moon and only the results sent back to Earth.

The Moon is a harsh mistress

Although Hartman was only reporting on the midpoint of the study effort, the contractors’ work revealed several common themes. Many of them suggested that the Moon’s surface was a poor base for observations of the Earth and that Earth orbit was superior. Discounting all of the problems of working on the Moon, the harsh fact was that the Moon was too far away to be useful. Put the same size telescope in geosynchronous orbit and it could see ten times better. Other military missions such as signals intelligence were not really viable from the Moon. And although Hartman’s notes don’t say it, one problem with the Moon is that it only viewed about half of the Earth at any one time. Even with a substantial base on the Moon, the United States would still need satellites to observe the rest of the Earth—and if observation satellites were already in Earth orbit, what use was a Moon base?

civilian Americans to the Moon by the end of the decade, not to build a base, but simply to land there; all talk of a military Moon base evaporated.

Another characteristic of these early studies was that the contractors knew very little about the problems of working on the Moon, even when some of those hazards should have been obvious. For instance, they were concerned about the threat from ultraviolet radiation from the Sun, but none of them appear to have mentioned galactic cosmic rays, which had been discovered early in the century. They suspected that lunar dust might be a problem due to static electricity and the possibility of deep “dust traps,” but did not know that lunar dust could be incredibly abrasive. And their proposals for digging underground bases were proven to be insanely optimistic once the Apollo astronauts reached the surface and had a very difficult time driving their flagpoles into the ground.

The Lunar Expedition

These various studies were finalized by September 1959. In April 1960, Ballistic Missile Division produced its “Lunar Observatory Study,” which also had the classified title of “Military Lunar Base Program.” To date only the nine-page summary has been declassified and several Air Force historians have searched for, and failed, to find the more extensive version. This summary was based upon reports provided by the contractor teams, noting that Boeing, North American, and United Aircraft had all been funded, whereas Douglas, Republic, and Minneapolis-Honeywell (originally teamed with United Aircraft) had been “voluntary contractors.”

The short summary focused on the initial steps needed to establish a lunar base, stating that the primary goal was to reach the Moon and build a base there, and the Air Force could take several more years before beginning work on the military aspects of the project—in other words, the goal was to build it and figure out what to do with it later.

By 1961 the Air Force produced another study, called Lunex, for “Lunar Expedition,” that further outlined plans for a 20-person lunar base. The Lunex study estimated that a base could be built for only $8 billion. But Lunex was the high-water mark of the military lunar base concept. By May 1961 President Kennedy announced the goal of sending civilian Americans to the Moon by the end of the decade, not to build a base, but simply to land there; all talk of a military Moon base evaporated.

But something else had happened in the meantime: by 1960 the US Navy had launched the first of its Polaris ballistic missile submarines, the USS George Washington. The George Washington was survivable against nuclear attack, and its missiles, although relatively short-ranged compared to a missile launched from the Moon, which could theoretically reach any spot on the Earth, were accurate enough to nuke a city. The Navy spent $64 billion on 41 Polaris submarines and 5,000 missiles by 1967. That was an expensive program, but it provided a huge amount of retaliatory power. The Air Force never could have based more than a few missiles on the Moon. Although the SR-192 study that focused on a lunar missile base has never been released, or apparently even found in Air Force archives, it undoubtedly concluded that the cost of even a limited retaliatory base on the Moon would be enormous.

Wernher von Braun’s Project Horizon study was a crash effort started after SR-183 and finished before it. Soon after Horizon was finished von Braun and his organization were transferred to NASA, and some of his ideas developed for the Horizon study were ultimately implemented as part of Apollo. But the Air Force studies involved far more companies and exposed many of them to the problems of spaceflight for the first time. What Edwin Hartman’s notes imply is that there may be a real legacy to these early studies. They may have prompted some of the first evaluations within various aerospace companies about what kinds of space missions they could do, not on the Moon, but closer to Earth.

As “For All Mankind” continues—it has been renewed for a second season—we will hopefully see how the military lunar base plot evolves. As some wise minstrels once sang, space may be the final frontier, but it’s made in a Hollywood basement.

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