What happens after NASA returns astronauts to the moon in 2024?
The plan to accelerate the lunar exploration program’s pace is an excellent one, if only because it concentrates NASA’s and contractor engineers’ attention on the goal. As the Apollo program demonstrated, a hard and fast deadline works to make the goal of landing people on the moon and returning them safely to Earth happen and not be forever delayed until it gets canceled. That is what happened to the previous two attempts proposed by both presidents Bush.
However, one can imagine a scenario in which humans land on the moon to universal acclaim, and afterward — nothing. The same thing happened during Apollo. Apollo did not lead to a lunar base, as it well could have, or anything else permanent. The 50th anniversary of Apollo 11 will be a time of celebration, but it might as well be one of mourning for what might have been.
Clearly, an early commitment must be made to build a lunar base, a center of science and commerce, on the site near the moon’s south pole. The return to the moon should be the first mission designed to start building that first community of humans to live on another world.
The late Paul Spudis, a lunar geologist, and Tony Lavoie, now a retired NASA engineer, proposed a plan that would send robots to the lunar surface to prospect for water ice, mine it, and store it for later use. Other robots would set up the infrastructure of a lunar base, habitats and the like.
If one adds a series of lunar landings by human astronauts, then an excellent program of lunar exploration and commercial development would ensure that would enrich the United States and her allies in ways that can only be speculated. Under a version of the plan, the Lunar Gateway would become a refueling depot for spacecraft flying to and from the moon as well as to deep space destinations such as Mars.
The initial lunar landing would, therefore, be given another purpose besides gathering geological samples and raising the flag. The astronauts would make an initial survey of the first lunar base site and would leave behind the first prospector robots that would roll across the moon’s surface, looking for ice. The Moon 2024 mission would not be a one-off event undertaken to prove that the United States still has its space exploration moxie. The mission would start an era in which human beings from many nations explore the moon for its scientific secrets and use its resources to start a space-based industrial revolution, spurring economic growth and job creation on Earth.
Casting the Moon 2024 mission as the beginning and not the end will make it difficult for the next president to cancel the program. Even if President Trump is reelected next year, there will be a next president elected in 2024, the year we return to the moon. If astronauts go to the lunar surface to start setting up a lunar base, the presidential candidates will have to explain whether they support continuing the effort and why. The American people will be able to judge the candidates by the answers they give and vote accordingly.
Every presidential election is called the most important election in history. The one to take place in 2020 certainly is, since it would decide whether the current economic boom will continue or whether the United States will descend into a Venezuela socialist hell. 2024 could decide whether the United States remains the leader of a worldwide program to explore, develop, and settle the high frontier of space or whether the country will cede the future to the Chinese and all that implies.
One can be confident which future most Americans will prefer. Space as an issue that decides an election could be the biggest opportunity that returning to the moon in 2024 could enable.
The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.