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  • Colonies on the Moon and the Economy of an Irish Pub
Jan 2012
Jan. 31, 2012 — Some 20 years ago, in the crowded back room of an Irish pub in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., two or three friends and I came up with a truly inspired plan: We would push a couple of tables together, raise a tiny flag and declare ourselves a sovereign nation. We would collect taxes from one another to pay for our beer and onion rings. And when we ran out of money, we would wage war on neighboring tables, pillaging and plundering and hauling off whatever we needed to maintain our little settlement.

It would never have worked, of course. To begin with, we had no legal claim to the tables in question. Also, with few natural resources and no economy to speak of, it would have been difficult to survive without significant infusions of cash and additional resources from somewhere outside the pub — and really, who’s going to be willing to foot the bill for such a venture?

As impractical as the plan was, though, it sure was fun to talk about. And somewhere in all of it, there might even have been the kernel of a good idea.

When Newt Gingrich announced his intention to build a permanent colony and possible US state on the moon by the end of his second term as president — should he be elected, of course — the interwebs lit up with comment about the folly and perhaps even cynicism of the suggestion (he made the announcement in front of an enthusiastic crowd in Florida’s “space coast”). One of the most common critiques: the cost of such an endeavor. The Center for Strategic & International Studies places the development costs of a lunar base that could host a four-person crew at about $35 billion; the annual operating costs would be about $7.35 billion. And four is a slightly smaller population than the 15,000 people Gingrich envisions in his colony/state. The cost of developing and maintaining such a settlement would surely be prohibitive, especially as the Republican party is loathe to discuss tax increases of any sort. It’s not clear that private industry would be willing to take on the risks — financial and otherwise — of building and operating a moon colony.

Another minor point noted in some of the online commentary: The 1967 “Outer Space Treaty” signed by the US and other nations forbids any government laying claim to a celestial resource, which means — if I understand correctly; my knowledge of international treaties isn’t as robust as it might be — any US state established on the moon would be illegal.

Let’s not focus on the negatives, though; let’s try to look at the possible merits of a 21st-century moon program. Gingrich didn’t specifically lay out a mission for his proposed lunar base but he has elsewhere discussed several of his “big ideas” for the moon. Some of these, as you might imagine, could involve and even benefit the optics community.

Mining. Gingrich has endorsed the idea of mining on the moon, and indeed he is not the only one to give serious thought to this possibility. The moon, it seems, offers enough of certain resources that private concerns are exploring the potential of extracting them. Some are already organizing prospecting operations with remotely controlled rovers to identify and map the huge stores of water, for example, believed to exist on the moon. These stores could be harvested and transported to low-earth orbit, where they could be converted to liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen propellants and sold commercially for a range of applications, including exploration, science, and space tourism.

The moon might also be a source for rare earth elements such as europium and tantalum, demand for which is rising to meet a host of electronics and green energy applications, including solar panels and hybrid cars.

Perhaps most intriguing, though, is the possibility of extracting helium from the soil of the moon. Helium has contributed to a number of important applications (See: Cadillacs, Congress and the Helium Reserve), from the helium-neon lasers used in laser eye surgery to medical diagnostics with MRI, to cryogenics studies and research using high-energy accelerators. The Earth’s supply of the element is limited, though. By some estimates, we will have almost completely depleted our supply by the end of the 21st century.

The moon, on the other hand, isn’t likely to run out of helium any time soon. Harvesting it and exporting it to Earth, therefore, could prove invaluable to these and other applications. The tricky part — and this is what constitutes the fine line between big ideas and straight-up grandiosity — is how to make such a thing economically feasible. To my knowledge, Gingrich hasn’t yet explained how he would do this in the context of a permanent moon colony, beyond making vague references to private industry taking the lead.

Still, I’ll give him points for style, and especially for linking the possibility of mining on the moon to attempts to bolster STEM education here on Earth. In the Dec. 10 Republican debate in Des Moines, Iowa, fellow candidate Mitt Romney was asked to name a few areas in which he disagreed with Gingrich.

“Let’s see. We can start with his idea to have a lunar colony that would mine minerals from the moon,” Romney said. “I’m not in favor of spending that kind of money to do that.”

Gingrich was unapologetic in his response. “I’m proud of trying to find things that give young people a reason to study science and math and technology,” he said, “and telling them that some day in their lifetime, they could dream of going to the moon, they could dream of going to Mars.”

Next time: high ideals and mirrors on the moon.

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