by Timothy Chilman
<I’d still like suggestions as to things to write about, to the email address above.>
In December 2011, while seeking the Republican nomination for President, Newt Gingrich declared: “By the end of my second term we will have the first permanent base on the moon and it will be American.” He was met by a mixture of laughter and applause. He said that if the base could amass 13,000 American residents, it could apply for statehood. He had chosen his audience well. He spoke to a large audience at a Holiday Inn Express in Florida, where thousands lost their jobs when the space shuttle was withdrawn from service.
Gingrich was widely denigrated. He was labeled Newt Skywalker. Mitt Romney, the leading contender for the Republican nomination, said Gingrich’s was “a big idea but a bad idea.” Fellow failed candidate Rick Santorum, who is now inextricably associated with anal sex, said that anyone who speaks of “brand new, very expensive schemes to spend more money” was “not being realistic.” John McCain, who unsuccessfully contested the 2008 election, said, “I think we ought to send Newt Gingrich to the moon and Mitt Romney to the White House.” Jon Stewart said, “Did he start with a Death Star and get kind of reigned in?” Slate magazine lambasted Gingrich’s “wasteful, scientifically unsound plan.” It was said that while Gingrich wished to reduce the number of marijuana smokers, they must have constituted his key audience. Gingrich had told reporters that Ron Paul would never be the Republican nominee because he “avoids reality.”
Gingrich was not entirely without support. Chuck Norris liked the idea. That internationally-respected journal, the Denver Post, ran a guest commentary entitled: “Newt Gingrich’s moon base is not a loony idea.” The terribly right wing British newspaper, the Daily Telegraph, said Gingrich’s plan was “an inspired idea that would reverse America’s enfeeblement.” A 67 year-old retired shuttle worker who was present for Gingrich’s speech said, “Probably the best speech I’ve heard in this political season so far. Visionary.”
Gingrich’s idea, however, was not new. Three-star General Arthur G. Trudeau led the 7th Infantry Division during the Battle of Pork Chop Hill during the Korean War. In March, 1959, he wrote: “A lunar outpost … is of critical importance to the U.S. Army of the future.”
Trudeau was instructing the Army’s chief of ordnance to formulate a proposal for a “manned lunar outpost” to “protect potential United States interests on the moon.” If the United States established a presence on the moon before any other nation, “the prestige and psychological advantage to the nation will be invaluable.”
The study, Project Horizon, planned to establish a moonbase by 1966. The time was less than a year since the Soviets had astounded the United States and the rest of the Western world by launching the Sputnik satellite. The United States was behind in the Space Race. A 118-page monograph produced by the Army in June, 1959, said, “To be second to the Soviet Union in establishing an outpost on the moon would be disastrous to our nation’s prestige and in turn to our democratic philosophy.” The Soviet Union had already proclaimed that it would get to the moon by 1967. There was some urgency involved.
The United States planned a moonbase which could accommodate between 10 and 20 people and allow for further exploration of the moon and the rest of space and “military operations on the moon.” The Army believed there were no known technical barriers to the establishment of a moonbase and that Project Horizon “should be a special project having authority and priority similar to the Manhattan Project in World War II.” The nation that invented the atomic bomb could surely put a few soldiers onto the moon.
Construction materials would be transported by 40 launches of the multi-stage Saturn II rocket, which was then in development. It was envisaged that orbiting space stations would be used as waypoints.
The would be two variants of a lunar landing vehicle. The first, for direct trips from the earth to the moon, would carry almost 6,000 pounds, while the second, which would be refueled in low-earth orbit, would carry almost 50,000 pounds. 490,000 pounds of cargo and 266,000 pounds of supplies were thought necessary for a moonbase.
Scientists suggested that natural caves be sealed with pressure bags to create habitable spaces on the moon. Caves would also provide protection from meteorites and temperature extremes. Drawings in the Army study depicted a buried cylindrical structure. Power could be generated by solar or nuclear means.
Supporters of Project Horizon held that the ultimate goal should be the deployment of weapon systems and sensors. Now, intercontinental ballistic missiles can reach any target within half an hour, and satellites provide detection capabilities 24 hours a day. Any enemy – undoubtedly guys rushin’ around with snow on their boots – would have the greatest difficulty in reaching the moon, and a U.S. military presence could neutralize any forces which might land. The situation would, of course, be reversed “if hostile forces were permitted to arrive first.” The United States could, it was said, establish “an operations lunar outpost by late 1966” if “initial manned landings” occurred in the spring of 1965. The cost would have been $6 billion. Any moonbase would have been protected by low-yield nuclear weapons and landmines. The landmines would release steel balls on command, and not by pressure.
In January, 1958, one star General Homer A. Boushey delivered a speech to the Aero Club of Washington, D.C. It was reported by U.S. News & World Report under the title of: “Who Controls the Moon Controls the Earth.” He said, “The moon provides a retaliation base of unequaled advantage.” He said that the Soviets would have to launch an attack on the moon two-and-a-half days before attacking the United States. Speaking to the House Armed Services Committee early in March, 1958, three star General Donald L. Putt said that missiles could be launched from deep shafts on the moon.
Many “Systems Requirement” studies were carried out, demonstrating that many people were involved with the endeavor. These studies cannot now be found, nor can memos, letters and other documents associated with them. It is possible copies may lie in neglected government archives or in the garage of a retired Air Force officer who illegally took a copy home.
The most probable explanation for the paucity of these studies is that they fell victim to the reforms of Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara. His minions applied systems analysis to weapons systems, and a great number of the Air Force’s more chimerical wishes were canceled. McNamara became better known for his involvement with the Vietnam War, where he gave his name to the McNamara Line. Officially known as the Strong Point Obstacle System, it was a network of obstacles and acoustic and motion sensors to hinder and monitor movement from the Demilitarized Zone to South Vietnam’s northernmost province of Quang Tri. Starting from his appointment in 1961, however, McNamara put paid to a number of dubious and costly programs, of which a military moonbase was surely one.
There is, at least, information about one study into the feasibility of a moonbase, SR-183, in the form of comprehensive notes taken by Edwin P. Hartman and stored at the National Archives regional office for southern California at Laguna Niguel, to the south of Los Angeles. Beginning in the early 1950s, Hartman headed the Western Support Office of the National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics, which was later absorbed by NASA when it was created in 1958. He was the representative of NACA and then NASA in southern California.
By the early 1960s, NASA sent representatives to the factories that were constructing the Saturn and Apollo space vehicles. Hartman would visit aerospace companies, be briefed on their work, and then report to his superiors. His observations were meticulous, and even more valuable in view of the fact that so many corporate records were never preserved. He spoke not only of ongoing projects, but the personalities of those involved and the financial situations and organizational and other problems of the companies involved.
Toward the end of March 1959, Hartman attended a number of briefings at the Ballistic Missile Division in Los Angeles. These related to work on SR-183 by industry teams. Hartman said there were four teams: Republic Aviation and Systems Corp. of America; Boeing, Westinghouse, and Aerojet Nucleonics; North American Aviation’s Missile Development Division and RCA; and Minneaopolis-Honeywell and United Aircraft Corp. Lockheed did not participate, despite having the most active space program in the shape of the WS-117L reconnaissance satellite program which was funded by the Air Force. Lockheed had bid for the studies but was not selected, possibly because it was believed to be overextended.
Hartman missed the final briefing by Minneaopolis-Honeywell and United Aircraft Corp. Information regarding SR-183 was leaked – or possibly officially given – to Aviation Week magazine, but this contained less detail than Hartman’s observations. Hartman said, “The companies that undertake SR studies for the Air Force do so largely at their own expense.” There would have been much of that – many people were involved. Hartman, however, pointed out that the U.S. government ended up indirectly footing the bill “as the income of most aircraft companies comes mainly from the government.” The lack of documentation can be explained by the fact that very little was passed to government officials, and what there was would probably have been marked as industry proprietary.
Hartman said that the objective of SR-183 was “to determine a sound and economical approach for the establishment of a manned intelligence observatory on the Moon.” The moon, he said, was “a favorite vantage point from which to observe enemy actions in space” and that its low gravity made it “a good platform for launching defensive vehicles.”
The teams had had only six months in which to work and almost no experience of spaceflight, and so arrived at ideas which were unrealistic to the point of what Hartman termed “fanciful.” Some of these ideas persist, and are no more realistic. Hartman wrote: “There is not much of a general nature to be said about the presentations except that they all seemed a little fantastic.”
Per Hartman, “The Douglas presentation was the briefest, most pessimistic and most down to Earth – if a lunar venture may be so described.” He was least impressed by the Boeing/Republic briefings and noted that “all of the presentations suffered greatly from a lack of basic knowledge about the subject discussed.” He said some of the concepts described were “of little value” other than the intellectual stimulation they evoked. But he did believe the exercise was worthwhile because it made companies devote thought to space missions, and the realization that many tasks were better performed from orbit was very useful. Some of the ideas developed for Project Horizon were used in the Apollo project.
Boeing and some other contractors advocated the basing of nuclear missiles on the moon. Boeing saw humans landing on the moon in 1963 and construction of a moonbase beginning in the mid-1960s, with the base becoming operational by 1970. Any base could be excavated by bombardment from space, which Hartman described as “hard landing.” 116 men would have reached the moon by 1973 at a cost of $30bn by the close of 1967. Apollo put 12 men onto the moon at a cost of around $24bn and never seriously contemplated a moonbase.
North American considered that a moonbase could be used to collect signals intelligence, surveil the earth, aid navigation, and relay communications. Identifying a Soviet ICBM silo with 90 percent certainty would require a three-foot resolution, which would have required a massive telescope. North American’s team said that the design of a base was “wide open,” which Hartman took to mean “no-one knows anything about it.”
Like Boeing, the Douglas group believed that observation from the moon and “aid in facilitating retaliatory strikes” were the best reasons to construct a moonbase. Douglas also suggested that the moon could house an easily transported spinning liquid mercury mirror, which significantly reduces the cost of building a telescope, although leaves it unable to change its direction of observation. Douglas believed that the moon was better than satellites because it was more stable, a harder target to attack, possessed exploitable natural resources, and provided a more natural environment for humans due to gravity.
Douglas proposed a design for a moonbase which was later suggested for a space station, a scale model for which was acquired by the team which produced the Star Trek television series. It appeared as the K-7 space station in The Trouble with Tribbles, one of the most popular ever Trek episodes.
In contrast to their North American counterparts and more in tune with reality, the Douglas team decided that collecting signals intelligence from the viewpoint of the moon was “far-fetched.” They said that observing ICBM launches from the moon was not possible, but a satellite could do so using an infrared telescope. This was the approach adopted by the Air Force a decade after, although TRW rather than Douglas was given the task.
The team from Republic was the only one to say that prestige was a major reason for the establishment of a moonbase. More concrete reasons were observation of the weather, enemy movements, and space vehicles; retaliatory bombardment; scientific use; and as a base for interplanetary missions. The Republic team noted that the moon was so distant from the earth that it was a less-than-ideal observation platform: the earth could be observed ten times better from orbit, if only the problems of stabilization and direction could be resolved, as Lockheed later did. In common with Douglas team, Republic concluded that collection of signals intelligence was impractical. Republic found the most promising reason for a moonbase to be retaliation.
Republic found that the plants best suited to cultivation on the moon were lettuce, soybeans, peanuts, and corn. Water might be extracted from rocks. Republic did say that it would be extremely challenging to develop a closed ecological system. Communications would be a problem as the line of sight was short, and signals would have to be relayed by satellite. The moon would only be able to view half the earth at a time, so satellites would still be required, making a moonbase less of a boon.
The contractors knew precious little of the problems of working on the surface of the moon, even when problems should have been obvious. They were concerned over the danger of ultraviolet radiation from the sun, but did not mention the cosmic rays which had been discovered at the beginning of the century. They believed lunar dust might be problematic due to static electricity and “dust traps,” but were unaware that it was exceedingly abrasive. Proposals for underground bases proved wildly optimistic in view of the fact that Apollo astronauts had the hardest of times merely putting flagpoles into the ground.
Oxygen represents 60 percent of the mass that would have to be transported betwixt earth and moon, making it the most crucial candidate for lunar resource development. There is much water on the moon. As a report by the Center for Strategic and International Studies said, if water and oxygen could be obtained locally, the operating costs of a moonbase would be significantly reduced. Valuable metals could also be obtained. Helium-3, an isotope which is rare on earth, may exist in significant quantities on the moon, and would be useful to nuclear fusion, if only someone could work out how to do it. As was stated by Neil Ruzic in his 1965 book, The Case for the Moon, a wide array of activities would benefit from the vacuum of the moon. Other uses for a moonbase which have become apparent since Project Horizon are hunting for exotic subatomic particles in space and watching for asteroids that might hit the earth.
A moonbase would have been powered by nuclear reactors. Personnel stationed on the moon would need to spend a minimum of 45 minutes a day in a spinning centrifugal chamber to counteract the effects of low gravity on muscle and bone. Pregnant women would not be able to stay on the moon.
By 1961, the Air Force had produced another study named Lunex – Lunar Expedition – which proposed a 20-person moonbase, which it said could be built for $8bn. In May, 1961, President Kennedy announced that civilians would be sent to the moon before the decade was out, and no base would be built.
A moonbase with nuclear weapons was obviated in 1959 when the US Navy launched the USS George Washington Polaris ballistic missile submarine. It was survivable, and while its missiles had less range than one launched from the moon, they could still reach any place on earth and were sufficiently accurate to nuke a city. The $64bn the Navy spent on 41 Polaris submarines and 5,000 missiles by 1967 provided a massive amount of retaliatory strength. The Air Force could have put no more than a handful of missiles on the moon.
There was no talk of lunar missile bases in the very busy deterrence theory community. By the end of the 1950s, the RAND Corporation was generating copious studies of deterrence theory. RAND’s most esteemed thinkers, including Henry Kissenger, Bernard Brodie, Herman Kahn, and Albert Wohlstetter, were christened “the wizards of Armageddon” by Fred Kaplan. They wrote publicly of deterrence theory, and failed to mention lunar bases, for instance in Brodie’s seminal work, Strategy in the Missile Age, which was published in 1959. Missiles launched from the moon would take three days to reach their destination. One spaceflight magazine said that attempting to control the earth from the moon was akin to trying to control Tibet from the peak of Mount Everest. The man in the moon was never going to be nuclear-armed.
A Manhattan Project-style effort could have worked if huge sums had been devoted to it, but there was diminishing political interest in a military moonbase as consternation over Sputnik abated, and the Vietnam War consumed any money which might have been employed. In 1967, the United States, Soviet Union, and United Kingdom signed the Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies. This forbade militarization of the moon, and is in effect to this day.
Army reports and the contractors from Republic stated that a moonbase would enhance the standing of the United States. After Gingrich’s comment, this was echoed by the Bloomfield Report and Daily Telegraph. Standard & Poor’s snatched away the AAA credit rating of the United States, whose deepest and lengthiest economic depression in 80 years began with the collapse of Lehman Brothers in 2008. The annual deficit is more than $1 trillion, 8.75 million jobs have been lost, and gasoline costs $4 a gallon. China is ascendant.
A moonbase would have the same effect on the United States as the transformation of astronaut Lee Majors into the Six Million Dollar Man on television in the 1970s: “We can rebuild him. We have the technology.” As happened with Majors, a moonbase would make the United States “Better than he was before. Better, stronger, faster.”
Cost and not technology is what prevents the construction of a moonbase. The Center for Strategic and International Studies said in a 2009 paper that a moonbase would cost $35bn to build and $7.35bn a year to run, excluding the costs of transportation. Transportation would be rather easier than first envisaged: Dr. John Hunter, once of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, showed that a super rail gun would reduce the cost of transportation to the moon to 10 percent of previous levels.
During the Apollo program, between 45 and 60 percent of Americans believed too much money was being spent on spaceflight, as was stated by a 2003 paper by the journal, Space Policy, and Apollo headed the list of program that Americans wished to see cut. But the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan cost between $3.2 and $4 trillion. The United States could get hold of some money by legalizing drugs.
There is more appetite for a moonbase now than there was for the Apollo program. In 1958, a year after the launch of Sputnik, 50 percent of the $1.3bn U.S. toy market was science fiction related. As Howard Schuman and Jacqueline Scott of the University of Michigan said, “[T]he events and changes that have maximum impact in terms of memorableness occur during a cohort’s adolescence and young adulthood.” These children are now voters. The same study asked people in 1985 what were the greatest events of the last 50 years, and space exploration came in third after the Second World War and the Vietnam War.
The idea of a moonbase is grandiose. But after spending his childhood reading Isaac Asimov novels and Missile & Rockets magazine, Newton Leroy Gingrich said, “Lincoln standing at Council Bluffs was grandiose. The Wright Brothers standing at Kitty Hawk were grandiose. John F. Kennedy was grandiose. I accept the charge that I am grandiose and that Americans are instinctively grandiose.” While there is no need for nukes, a moonbase would be terrific for American prestige and beneficial to science, while costing a fraction as much as activities in Iraq and Afghanistan, which benefited neither of these things. It is time for just a little grandiosity.
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