Douglas MacKinnon: US needs a permanent moon base – So forget about going to Mars for now

Fifty years after America first landed men on the moon, it’s long past time we established a permanent U.S. base there – and shelve far more costly plans to land astronauts on Mars for at least the next two or three decades.

Our national security and economic security demand a permanent U.S. moon base. In sharp contrast, sending astronauts to Mars would amount to an incredibly expensive and risky photo op that simply wouldn’t provide the benefit to justify the cost.

As we prepare to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing Saturday, we need to accept the reality that our country has many priorities requiring large amounts of federal spending. Our space program is important, but it’s unrealistic to expect federal officials to take a “money is no object” view of spending on space exploration.

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So like a family setting spending priorities – saving for college tuition instead of a luxury car or an expensive cruise – our elected officials need to concentrate on spending on a moon base today and leave a manned mission to Mars for the next generation or the one after that.

While researching my first book, I had the high honor to interview all 12 courageous astronauts who walked on the moon. After that, I spent parts of three years working on various space issues for the Defense Department. And later I served as a consultant to a private-sector space firm and the U.S. government for over a decade.

The most important lesson I learned during all those years is that space is a hostile and unforgiving environment and that every single taxpayer dollar spent on space exploration is precious and must be allocated to missions that directly benefit the American people.

But just because Americans landed on the moon 50 years ago doesn’t mean there is no reason to go back and stay there. Imagine if – after Christopher Columbus first landed on Caribbean islands in 1492 – he went back to Spain and said there was no reason for him or anyone else to go back, because he had already been to the New World.

Sending American astronauts back to the moon to stay has a tremendous upside for our nation. It is necessary to ensure our country is not placed in a greatly vulnerable position by the military-oriented space programs of Russia and China. Both those nations have declared their intention to establish moon bases, and we’d be foolish to not join them.

President Trump has seemingly taken both sides on the critically important issue of America’s role in space.

After first rightfully taking ownership of sending Americans back to the moon by 2024 (a rushed date), the president intimated a complete reversal on June 7 when he tweeted: “For all the money we are spending, NASA should NOT be talking about going to the Moon – we did that 50 years ago. They should be focused on the much bigger things we are doing, including Mars … Defense, and Science.”

But just because Americans landed on the moon 50 years ago doesn’t mean there is no reason to go back and stay there. Imagine if – after Christopher Columbus first landed on Caribbean islands in 1492 – he went back to Spain and said there was no reason for him or anyone else to go back, because he had already been to the New World. On to explore Antarctica!

We need to understand that in the vast expanse of space, a trip to the moon takes just three days  – meaning the moon is virtually next door. In sharp contrast, a roundtrip to Mars could take two years or more and be extremely dangerous for our astronauts.

In addition to the dangers of the actual voyage, we’re not sure what the health effects would be on people who spend two years or more in space and spend additional time on another planet. 

And a Mars mission could cost $100 billion or more. That’s a lot of money to stage a flag-planting ceremony and a few scientific experiments.

Aside from its vast commercial promise, our nearby moon represents the ultimate high ground militarily. Ideally, we hope no nation would take the weapons of war into space, but we’d be foolish to count on it, regardless of treaties to the contrary.

It would be the height of irresponsibility – literally – to place the safety and security of our children, grandchildren and generations beyond in the hands of the Russians and Chinese looking down on Earth from bases on the moon.

And we need to be concerned with more than the possible dangers in the distant future. Today there is no nation more dependent upon its satellites in Earth orbit for its national and economic security than the United States.

China and Russia understand our vulnerability and continually stage war games in which they make plans to destroy our satellites in the event we go to war. America doesn’t want such a war to occur, of course, but the best way to prevent it is to show our potential adversaries that they have no hope of defeating us in a conflict that spreads beyond the bounds of our planet.

Having bases on the moon would enable the new Space Force that President Trump wants to create to better protect our satellites from attack, and to mount a retaliatory attack if necessary.

By every account, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine – a former Navy pilot and congressman representing Oklahoma – is a good and honorable man who has the potential to be an exceptional head of our space agency.

Bridenstine and other members of the Space Council need to sit down with President Trump and tell him what he needs to hear, as opposed to what he might want to hear.  They need to say that as attractive as a manned Mars landing might be, it would ultimately prove to be a costly mistake.

Now is not the time for Mars, but it is the time to still make history.

To protect and benefit the American people to the greatest extent possible, establishing a permanent American presence on the moon should be our only goal outside the bounds of Earth.

Marking the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 with a presidential announcement of a permanent moon base would be as significant as President John F. Kennedy’s pledge on May 25, 1961 when he told Congress: “First, I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth. No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind, or more important for the long-range exploration of space; and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish.”

An announcement by President Trump of a permanent moon base would be the best way he could honor every heroic astronaut who has journeyed into space and honor the thousands of Earth-bound Americans who worked for many years to make the moon landing and our other achievements in space possible.

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Even more importantly, our presence on the moon would protect the American people far into the future.

Mars isn’t going anywhere. We’ll get there someday, and the knowledge we gain by having men and women living on the moon will help make our eventual Mars mission safer and a greater success.

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