The new permanent Moon base does not require international support.
Thursday, December 14, 2006
We cannot go back to the Moon by ourselves” has become one of those Washington mantras that gets repeated over and over without anyone really knowing whether it’s valid. NASA has made clear that hardware in the “critical path” will be all-American and that it will stick to the “no exchange of funds” policy.
This means that the partnership model used in building the International Space Station (ISS) will not apply to any base slated for outside of low Earth orbit—such as the permanent moon base that was announced last week.
In spite of any number of international workshops and conferences, no consensus on partnership or cooperation has emerged.
A US base on the Moon will give America legal say elsewhere in the solar system.
Apollo, let’s remember, was an almost 100-percent American effort. The astronauts may have worn watches from Switzerland and carried Swedish cameras, but that was about the limit of foreign hardware. Of course, the international science community was a major participant in helping to plan and design the experiments and in analyzing the samples that were brought back to Earth, but as we all know, science was, at best, a secondary consideration.
On the other hand, the ISS was, almost from the start, a US-led international effort. When Space Station Freedom was first proposed by Ronald Reagan in 1984, he and others saw it as yet another way to bolster the West in the struggle against Soviet Communism, and he invited Japan and the Europeans to take major stakes in the project. The offer was enthusiastically accepted by Japan and Italy. In a letter to then-Secretary of State George Shultz, NASA administrator Jim Beggs wrote, “The Japanese believe they made a mistake in not joining us on the Shuttle and are determined not to be left behind again. In Europe, Italian Prime Minister Craxi was openly ebullient about the prospect of cooperation and strong Italian participation is assured.” The French and Germans were less enthusiastic but agreed to join the program.
Without the international imprimatur, the ISS would probably never have survived the early years of the Clinton Administration. Bringing the Russians into the project seemed like a way to cement the new and (then) promising relationship with Moscow. Indeed, the early years of Russian-US joint ventures in space were extremely promising: The shuttle flights to Mir were a great success and taught both sides some valuable lessons.
Russia’s role in the ISS is more complicated. It has created a level of goodwill, confidence and understanding between the two space organizations that will endure for decades. On the other hand, it created problems when NASA had to pay, and pay again, for Russian hardware that was in the critical path.
After the Columbia accident, most people involved in the program said things like, “Thank God for the Russians.” Under current circumstances the Soyuz and Progress vehicles have indeed saved the ISS. If the ISS had been built without Russia, the US would have had to build a crew rescue vehicle to perform the lifeboat and taxi functions now done by the Soyuz.
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So far NASA’s Vision for Space Exploration program is closer to the Apollo model than to ISS. As in the 1960s, the international scientific community is invited to play a major role in the project. Unlike that era, there are lots of nations that can launch their own probes up to the Moon. Lunar orbit is going to become quite crowded and the flow of data back down to the Earth is going to be impressive. Turning that information into useful knowledge is not something the US can do on its own.
Getting human beings back onto the surface of the Moon is going to be an almost entirely US operation. Sure, the Chinese and the Russians may try to beat the US onto the lunar surface, but don’t bet on it. The European Space Agency (ESA) has a small-scale precursor program, but right now and for the foreseeable future, they do not have enough money to do it.
Of all the space-faring nations, Japan may be best positioned to cooperate with the US Moon program. A lunar base will need to be built by astronauts and “robonauts” working closely together. Japan is both technically capable of building these systems and may be better able to afford to do so than other potential partners.
The US is probably not going to go back to the Moon as part of an international organization where all the partners are given an equal say, or a veto. Some of the burden and rewards of building an outpost may be shared, and once humans are established up there, development will be carried out by people from many nations, but America intends to lead the way.
A permanent US base on the Moon will give America the overwhelming legal say in what can and cannot be done on the Moon and thus what will happen elsewhere in the solar system. Concepts such as homesteading and private property that may be anathema to Europe’s political elites can be firmly established, even in the face of international disapproval. As long as the US maintains its freedom of action it will be able to shape the future economic rules of space commerce to fit both its traditions and its interests. Handing others a veto over the future of the solar system is not in the interests of the US, nor in those of other freedom-loving nations.
TAYLOR DINERMAN is a columnist at The Space Review.