H.R. 870, introduced Feb. 3 in the House, proposes that NASA build a colony on the moon.
The bill was proposed earlier this month by Representative Bill Posey (R-Fla.). His proposal is more than a bit ironic. After all, it was only a few short months ago that President (then President-elect) Donald Trump’s team proposed eliminating NASA’s crucial climate research. And the Republicans are notorious for opposing science initiatives like stem cell research and the teaching of evolution.
But the space program has been good for Posey’s home state of Florida. The aerospace manufacturing industry is Florida’s largest manufacturing sector. And Florida’s Space Coast – a cluster of launch sites about an hour east of Orlando – is used by companies in the private space industry like Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin and Elon Musk’s SpaceX, as well as by NASA.
Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich was roundly mocked when he proposed a moon colony during the Republican presidential primary in 2012. But the following year, NASA launched the Solar System Exploration Research Virtual Institute. One of the project’s many goals was figuring out how human settlements on the moon could obtain water.
Darby Dyar, professor of astronomy and geology at Mount Holyoke College, is part of the SSERVI team. She’s optimistic about near-future lunar colonies:
“In my lifetime, we will establish some kind of permanent station on the moon.”
Moon colonies are hardly a new idea. In 1925, Bohun Lynch published Menace From the Moon, a novel that imagined a future conflict between moon colonists and Earth. The idea of having manned colonies on the moon and elsewhere has been a common sci-fi trope ever since.
More serious proposals to develop a moon colony were drafted soon after Apollo 11 succeeded in landing humans on the moon in 1969.
Physicist Gerry O’Neill was one of the earliest proponents of moon settlements. In 1977, he led a study to determine how NASA could establish a permanent lunar base. He concluded that by the early 1980s it would be possible to set up a mining and transport operation on the moon. From there, minerals and metals could be processed in an orbital space colony.
That never happened. But interest in planting a permanent moon settlement remained. In 2008, the National Space Society proposed a domed city 25 miles in diameter – large enough to house 10,000 people:
“The original city must be created underground. The city will consist of several sections connected by a transportation system of commuter rail lines. As underground infrastructure expands, subscale domes of increasingly larger size will be built and integrated into the system. The dome itself will be a substantial structure and, when complete, will allow for the actual living, recreation, and business quarters for the first lunar settlement.”
A 2016 study concluded that for about $10 billion, NASA could establish a more modest colony appropriate for 10 people by 2022.
But if H.R. 870 is going to get off the ground, it’s going to need financial support. NASA’s entire Human Exploration Operations budget for this year is just $8.4 billion.
It shouldn’t be a hard sell. NASA gets less than a penny for every dollar of the federal budget. Even at its funding peak during the Cold War, it never received more than four cents per federal dollar.
But the return on that investment – in the form of new technologies like GPS systems, kidney dialysis machines, and implantable pacemakers, to name a few – makes a strong case for lunar colonies and a continuing American commitment to space exploration.
Space science has long been a source of political unity. After the initial one-upmanship of the Space Race subsided, Soviet and American scientists shared research and collaborated on experiments. And here in the U.S., space exploration has consistently earned support from both parties. With luck, H.R. 870 will meet with similar goodwill.
Featured image via YouTube video.