Exposing PseudoAstronomy

January 26, 2012

Newt to the Moon and Mars?


Introduction

When I first started this blog back in 2008, one of the things I said I’d be writing about is bad astronomy in the media. I’d say that bad astronomy by a (somehow) front-runner for the US Republican presidential nomination is close enough (example article).

And by the way, this post is going to have some politics in it; if you disagree with my particular politics, as long as you’re civil, comments will go through, but I honestly don’t really care if you disagree with my politics.

Seriously?

Newt Gingrich is known for saying grandiose things. I wasn’t really paying attention to politics when I was in middle school so I don’t know if by “grandiose” people mean “stupid,” but this would definitely count. In what is either pure delusion – in which case he should not be President – or over-the-top pandering (which would be typical for a politician), Gingrich was on Florida’s space coast and said that, if he were president, by 2021 (the end of his second term), we would have a permanent base on the moon and “regular” flights to Mars.

Why this Is Not Possible Politically

To put it succinctly, Congress is a nearly non-functional mess with a large fraction completely unwilling to spend any more money nor raise any taxes. (Speaking of which, can anyone get me a good deal on TurboTax 2011? My taxes are going to be complicated this year with all the government disinfo money stuff.) This is a statement of fact.

Congress could not agree on a billion dollars or so for the James Webb Space Telescope. The Apollo program cost many $10s billion, and at its height in 1966, NASA’s budget was 4.41% of the federal. Lately, we’ve been hovering around 0.6%. Call me a cynic or pessimist, but I don’t see any Republican – nor most Democrats – voting to appropriate $50-100 billion to get to the moon in 8 years with a permanent base and regular trips to Mars.

Why this Is Not Possible Legally

I’m not sure how much of a snag this would put in Swingrich’s plans, but the Outer Space Treaty forbids any signatory government from owning any land off Earth. So how we would have a permanent lunar base and grant them statehood (something else Gingrich wants) would probably require pulling out of this treaty. I’m not entirely sure how that works, but I think Congress would also need to be in on that. (Someone correct me if I’m wrong – it’s been awhile since I’ve read the Constitution.)

Why this Is Not Possible Logistically

Let’s assume Congress gives us the money and the UN its blessing. Logistically speaking, with the amount of bureaucracy and infrastructure in place, you cannot build the equipment (also see below), hire and train the people, and figure out all the other logistical things that need to happen to make this happen. That is, unless you completely gut the bureaucracy (that’s a separate issue) and replace it with something lean that gets things done quickly. Perhaps a DARPA model?

The next generation space capsules had to wait for the shuttle to stop so they could use that infrastructure. The death of the Orion capsule took something like another year before that program could be completely mothballed. Changing direction yet again would add significant time to this stuff.

And let’s not forget all of the commissions and committees that would need to be set up to study the issue and write up their reports before funding would happen, and don’t forget the obligatory 3-month extensions, either.

Why this Is Not “Possible” Scientifically/Technologically

And then we get into this area. So many ways to go here. We could start with lunar dust being a huge issue, getting through almost every seal, with just ideas and laboratory experiments on how to deal with it (magnetic fields or microwaving it are the two I’m familiar with off the top of my head).

What about a propulsion system? If we use the Apollo-style giant rockets, what about building them? Transporting them? Re-kajiggering them to upgrade them for +50 years tech?

What about the actual craft to the moon that can lug stuff for a lunar base – not just people, but food, water, equipment, building supplies? There aren’t any trees on the moon, you can’t just go out like the old American Frontier and chop down some logs and build yourself a cabin. These are things that have been thought of, but none of them have really been tested nor built.

How about a big one – radiation? Radiation is not a huge issue during a solar minimum for a 2-week trip to the moon. But a 6-month voyage to Mars, plus time there under an atmosphere that won’t protect you, plus the trip back, carries a huge radiation problem not just from the sun but from cosmic rays and the like. In this case, the problem has been thought of, but I have not read anything that suggests that anyone’s solved it, even on paper.

Final Thoughts

If it wasn’t obvious, I don’t like Newt. I don’t like most politicians, especially when they are pandering beyond normal stupidity. This was one of those cases. Or Newt is just incredibly ignorant. Either way, this is one of the more obvious empty promises that I hope comes back to bite him in debates. Romney or Obama, if you’re reading this, you should be taking notes.

P.S. I don’t agree with Santorum on much of anything (I suppose I agree with him that air is generally a good thing to breathe), but I do agree with what he said here: “The idea that anybody’s going out and talking about brand new, very expensive schemes to spend more money at a time when we do not have our fiscal house in order in my opinion is playing crass politics and not being realistic with the people of this country as to the nature and gravity of the problem.”

Followup: This has been getting a lot more play in the media in the last day or so. Every article I read basically treated it as a joke – as in Newt Gingrich was the joke for proposing such a stupid idea. Here’s a nice paragraph from Time, as it’s along my line of thinking:

“Leave aside for a moment that the professor, politician and former not-a-lobbyist for Freddie Mac either doesn’t understand that “grand” and “grandiose” are two very different things, or does understand and is copping to more delusion and fabulism than one might want in a president. The real problem is that Gingrich often doesn’t seem to get that merely being willing to say any damn thing is not the same as being able to do any damn thing, especially when the challenges you’re taking on don’t involve just political rivals and government policy, but the hard laws of engineering and physics, which are a wee bit less amenable to jawboning and deal-making.”

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