Moon Base Alpha: If Not U.S., Then Who?

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Published February 07, 2010

| FoxNews.com

If the U.S. won’t be going to the moon again anytime soon, who is?

Forty years ago the U.S. raced to plant the first foot on the moon. Now, as India, Russia, South Korea and China compete to return for further exploration, the U.S has all but dropped out -- and even Buzz Aldrin thinks that may be OK.

Aldrin, speaking to FoxNews.com, says the next step for NASA should be to create a long-term plan for more ambitious efforts -- visiting Mars or a nearby asteroid -- aided by robotics and astronauts from other countries. "It's much better to take our experience and aid other countries in conducting their races," says Aldrin.

But many argue that letting other countries win the race to return is akin to admitting failure. Beyond inspiring millions with the magnitude of what Americans are capable of, the race to the moon was viewed as essential to proving scientific competition for the country. 

"We're at a very embarrassing moment," says Jeffrey Manber, the author of "Selling Peace," a book that details Russian-American cooperation in space. "Space policy of the last several decades has been a failure. We'll be dependent on Russia for the next 5 to 7 years to fly to and from the International Space Station. And we got here because we stayed too long with the space shuttle program."

NASA had been betting on the Constellation program: the new Orion spacecraft, the Ares rocket and the Altair lunar lander. Testing has already started on Orion at the Plum Brook Station in Ohio. But work over the past 5 to 6 years has come to a standstill, and future space missions are uncertain following news that President Barack Obama is canceling Constellation. (Grey Hautaluoma, a NASA spokesman, told FoxNews.com that the agency cannot comment for this story while it develops an implementation plan for the president's new budget.)

It's a cantankerous issue, mostly because after those famous first steps on July 20, 1969, no one expected such little progress in space exploration. The U.S. has visited the moon six times in total, including the first landing where Armstrong famously flubbed his pre-scripted line -- he was supposed to say one small step for a man (meaning himself) but said a small step for man instead.

The last visit took place in 1972 with Apollo 17 -- famous for bringing back moon rocks.

Competition in Space

Americans are divided on the current space race with China, Russia, South Korea and India. Many FoxNews.com readers expressed outrage that the U.S. would abandon its efforts to remain competitive in space exploration, while many believe our tax dollars would be better spent creating new jobs.

Jamie Larson, who works for a family insurance business in Fergus Falls, Minn., says he's a sci-fi fan in favor of the U.S. making a return trip to the moon -- but wonders if it's feasible or even practical.

"As an American I believe we need to be on the forefront of space exploration, whether it be returning to the Moon or a Mars landing," he told FoxNews.com. "It's important that we are able to keep a country like China from claiming the moon as theirs. If anything, it's all ours."

Jon Bacon, a representative for Wilson Electronics, thinks a return trip is too expensive for the return on investment. And some people aren't so sure there even is a space race to the moon.

"The race to the Moon is one the United States has already won," says John M. Logsdon, former director of the Space Policy Institute, professor at George Washington University, and a key NASA advisor. "The stated target for Russia to send people to the Moon is 2025 and for China there is no formal target, but 2030 is a reasonable estimate. The United States can, and probably will, be back to the moon before then. Much more likely is a global cooperative effort to explore space beyond low-Earth orbit."

Manber disagrees, saying China will likely land on the moon before any other country, for exploration reasons and as a symbolic act. That country, he says, has 200,000 engineers in its space program and long-term goals for space. America, meanwhile, runs what Manber calls "sprints" that are more reactionary and tend to be more about proving our international prowess. Russian plans lie somewhere in between.

"The Russians are the leaders in low-Earth-orbit space today," says Manber, explaining that the former Soviet Union continued to provide crew and cargo to the space station after the Challenger disaster. According to Manber, the Russians also have the best transportation infrastructure.

Buzz Aldrin is in favor of a concentrated, global effort to reach Mars -- or more specifically, one of the moons of Mars where an international delegation would set up a fueling depot. He says Russia, who is planning a Mars mission in the next 20 years, is already ahead of the U.S. in terms of technical know-how.

"I doubt Russia would want to send cosmonauts to the moon, it would indicate how far behind they are," says Aldrin. "They are very anxious about being first to Mars as evidenced by their missions to Phobos," one of the two moons surrounding Mars.

"In the past, Aldrin has been critical of the space shuttle program and current plans with NASA's Orion and Altair lunar landers, stating to FoxNews.com that NASA should have developed two midsize rockets instead of one small and one large, making them less flexible for missions.

Manber agrees with Aldrin that the next step is for the U.S. to move to an international mindset, equating the current model with NASA to a centralist government that mandates every step. With better cooperation, he says, it might be possible to set up lunar colonies or mine for minerals.

"The auto industry is international, the aviation industry is international," says Manber, noting that a cross-country flight in the U.S. involves a plane with parts developed in several countries. "Somehow we've come to the notion that the space program is different."

Obama: Privatizing Space?

It's unclear from recent statements whether President Obama is entirely in favor of privatizing space exploration -- a capitalistic approach that would not match up with other policies. However, he has stated that a visit to an asteroid could provide better scientific findings. 

"I applaud the Obama administration's policy," says Manber, saying the proper next steps might be to go to an asteroid or beyond our own orbit. "We've been to the moon six times. If we go back, we should do it as Americans -- meaning, in a private-sector way. South Korea's space port and capsules are being designed by the Russians. This is a different time and a different era."

Manber says the cold war ended decades ago, so any new space programs should have clear financial and human exploration benefits, not just to prove the trip is still possible.

"The only reason to go back to the moon is to exploit more abundant resources like helium-3 (used for nuclear fuel research and rare on earth), make an observatory, or true colonization," says Manber.

In the end, economies of scale do make another moon landing an interesting proposition.

"China will become the Wal-Mart of space, lowering the cost of space operations," says Manber. "If we try to compete with that, the results will be the same as if we try to compete on basic manufacturing."

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