Moon Colonies, the Fantasy and the Reality

I was surprised how much support Newt Gingrich got for his proposal for a moon colony. The Atlantic, for example, praised this as visionary.

There’s a big difference between a colony where people settle and a research station where people go to do science and then return home. It would be visionary to have a research station on the moon, and even perhaps a program allowing students, journalists and teachers to visit too. I’d sign up immediately.  

Building real estate up there is a different story. When I visited the South Pole Station, I was excited to go but happy to have a two way ticket. People do stay for months at a time, but many have reported stresses and conflicts that result from being isolated with a small group of people. The famous Biosphere II experiment out in the Arizona Desert also gave us some insights, showing what kinds of romantic and interpersonal conflicts arose and how much stress they caused the participants.  Any place on Earth is paradise compared to the moon.

I’ve noticed a pattern in attitudes, with more religiously oriented folks gravitating toward statements about space colonization, and more secular types more likely to favor space exploration and science-based missions. Why is this? Does it have to do with different views of the very nature of humanity? Seeing ourselves as created beings must feel very different from seeing ourselves as animals that arose from our planet's materials.

Sadly, the reality of America’s current space program is reflected in this press release from the Planetary Society – an organization that supports both crewed and unscrewed missions:


The Obama administration's proposed 2013 NASA budget focuses almost all the agency's cuts onto the planetary science program that funds the robotic exploration of the solar system. NASA Planetary Science Division budget would be cut by 20% from $1.5 billion in 2012 to $1.2 billion in 2013. The proposed budget cuts will force the United States to give up its leadership in solar system exploration.

The robotic exploration program has delivered a golden age of planetary exploration including the Mars rovers; the Cassini mission to Saturn; MESSENGER, which is now orbiting Mercury; Dawn, orbiting the asteroid Vesta; and Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter and GRAIL, which are orbiting our Moon exploring its structure and origins.

"If the NASA budget is passed in its current form, American leadership in planetary sciences will be endangered," said Dan Britt, Chair of Division for Planetary Sciences, American Astronomical Society. "We strongly believe that the robotic exploration of the solar system resonates with the American people, that it is something that NASA needs to be doing, and it is something the American people will support even in tight budget times."

Under the proposed budget NASA will be forced to cancel its plans for its most ambitious exploration missions, slash the Mars Exploration Program, and kill the Lunar Quest Program. The cuts will also end collaborations with the European Space Agency on the 2016 Mars Trace Gas Orbiter and the 2018 ExoMars rover, delay the economical Discovery and New Frontiers space programs, and force cuts in operations and data analysis for a number of current missions.

The planetary science community recently finished its latest decadal survey, Vision and Voyages for Planetary Science, under the auspices of the National Research Council. It recommends to NASA a program of balanced exploration and scientific analysis. Under the President's proposal, implementation of the balanced, consensus, budget-conservative plan outlined in the decadal survey will not be possible.

The American Astronomical Society's Division for Planetary Sciences, the world's largest professional association of planetary scientists, urges Congress to support and fund a vigorous and competitive planetary science program as recommended by the National Research Council.