In case you missed the news, former House Speaker and Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich jumped the shark last week. While pandering for votes near Cape Canaveral, Gingrich said that by the end of his second term the United States would have established a colony on the moon. Even better for potential colonists, when the colony reaches 13,000 people they can apply for statehood!
It’s all part of Gingrich’s wanting to distinguish himself as a different, big picture kind of candidate. While the unemployed aerospace workers near the space center were enthusiastic, the other remaining candidates quickly realized that his proposal was ridiculous. Mitt Romney was quick to capitalize on it by criticizing his proposal at the next debate. Perhaps as a result, Mitt Romney now appears to be outpolling likely Republican voters in Florida, who vote Tuesday in the state’s primary.
Gingrich’s proposal is technically feasible. We obviously know how to get to the moon, as we have done it many times before. One thing we have learned since the days of Apollo, and has been reinforced through decades of space shuttle flights, is that while we know how to get man into space, we have failed to figure out a way to do it cost efficiently. The space shuttle was originally envisioned as a means for getting cargo into space for as low as $118 a pound (in 1972 dollars). It seemed sort of plausible when it was first launched. Subsequently we discovered it cost a lot more than that. In 2010 dollars, each shuttle mission cost about $1.5 billion dollars, if you divide the cost of the program in constant dollars by the number of flights. The last space shuttle flight was estimated to have cost about $40,000 per pound of payload.
That’s $40,000 to get one pound of payload into a low earth orbit. The moon of course is much further away. To really build permanent colonies on the moon all sorts of heavy equipment would need to be transported there, requiring spacecraft with relatively large cargo bays, something we don’t yet possess. While there is some hope that water can be harvested from the moon, it would certainly be neither easy nor cheap to acquire. For the foreseeable future, water would have to be imported from Earth. A gallon of water weighs about 8.35 pounds. Assuming we find some very efficient way of transporting cargo to the moon, say at a cost of $10,000 a pound, it would cost about $100,000 to move just a gallon of water from the earth to the moon. A hundred gallons would cost a million dollars to transport. Bear in mind that my cost is artificially low and it would likely cost much more like $100,000 a pound. It doesn’t take much back of the envelope calculating to discover that creating a colony on the moon, at least with current technology, would be ruinously expensive.
But when you are a big picture guy like Newt Gingrich, apparently these minor problems can be ignored. It’s unclear how such a major endeavor would be funded. Gingrich after all is a candidate famous for wanting to reduce taxes, not raise them. Based on his proposals, don’t expect a Gingrich administration to touch defense spending, except to increase it. From his belligerent talk it sounds like we might be fighting dual wars with Iran and North Korea too if he were elected president. But even if the money could be found, is it even technically possible in just eight years to have a sustained human colony on the moon? It seems unlikely, as we do not possess at the moment the launch vehicles needed to do the job, as the Saturn V rocket has long been retired. So not only is the proposal cost prohibitive, it appears technically impossible to accomplish as well, at least within eight short years.
Perhaps it could happen if Gingrich were to rescope the mission. Perhaps the goal should be to colonize the moon with a self-sustaining colony of gerbils instead of humans. We could probably do that for $100 billion or so, and chances are the gerbils would do a much better job adapting to the moon that we would. In any event, his proposal should be greeted with derision. Once the costs are understood this by itself should make him unqualified for president.
Governor Jerry Brown in his first term as California governor was famously called “Governor Moonbeam” for the sin of being New Agey. If I were Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum or Ron Paul, I would be attaching a “Speaker Moon Colony” label to Gingrich then let him twist slowly, slowly in the wind.