If 50 years of exploring and not exploring space has taught us anything, it's that when it comes to building vaporware, nobody beats NASA and the politicians behind it. The manned space program has distinguished itself for some of the most ingenious machinery ever built vehicles unlike any ever imagined before because they were meant to travel in environments no one had ever explored before. But the space program has been equally defined by its dreams come to naught: big plans promised by politicians with no money to follow them up; big blueprints shown off by engineers without any constituency elsewhere in the agency.
Space watchers could thus be forgiven for being wary Monday, when NASA announced its plans for a manned moon base in the south lunar pole, a settlement that it says should be up and running in 2020 and permanently occupied in 2024. A manned space program that has done nothing but circle the harbor of low-Earth orbit since 1972 losing 14 astronauts to accidents in the process hardly seems likely to pull off something so daring, especially when it's got an 18-year deadline in which funding and governmental enthusiasm for the project could easily melt away.
And yet there's plenty of reason for cautious optimism. After trying to reinvent the technological wheel with the dangerous and temperamental space shuttle, NASA is returning to what it does best. The hardware and crew for the lunar base will be sent into orbit atop comparatively reliable, disposable boosters, based on the sturdy and powerful engines of the shuttle and long-extinct Saturn boosters. The lunar orbital vehicles will be souped-up Apollo command modules and the landers will be similarly updated lunar excursion modules the lovable, buglike LEMs. Astronauts on Apollos 15, 16 and 17 already showed that lunar rovers could be safely driven across the moon's surface, providing another proven technology that would be essential to a lunar community.
Even more promising if far more speculative is the mission profile for the crews. All of the Apollos landed near the lunar equator, a comparatively easy target for first-time visitors who don't plan to stay too long. A moon base would have to be built in the harder-to-target poles. The perpetual sunshine in most of the extreme north and south means plenty of light for energy-producing solar panels; the perpetual darkness in the shadowed polar regions means a steady supply of water ice, which can be harvested for consumption and fuel manufacture. Currently, the lip of south pole's Shackleton Crater is NASA's favorite site.
There are other, trickier challenges that would have to be overcome. Part of the justification for a lunar base has always been that the moon is rich in helium-3, an isotope of common helium that could serve as fuel in eventual fusion reactors. Astronauts could, in theory, mine the stuff and ship it back to Earth. That's fine, but first we have to, well, invent the reactor. What's more, as the beleaguered crews aboard the International Space Station have discovered, sometimes just maintaining your ship can take all your time and the mission itself scientific research, mining gets put off.
Then, of course, there's money. NASA's budget is currently about $17 billion a year, with no increase in sight. The agency insists that's sufficient to build the base, a claim that should become easier to believe after 2010, when the shuttles are mothballed and the space station is done and we quit throwing money into two programs that have long been revenue sinks. The agency hopes to woo international partners too, but after the bust of the space station a U.S.-led but multi-national progra it may not be so easy to make the sale.
Still, there's no denying that this time NASA is showing both imagination and realism. That, for an agency that has fought so long to regain its Apollo mojo, is truly something. Fourteen years and a couple hundred billion dollars from now, we'll see what it's got us.