BRANDON J. WEICHERT | THE WEICHERT REPORT
NASA has desired to construct a space station near the moon while the Chinese and Indian space programs—as well as a variety of private space firms—are much more interested in building a permanent human presence on the lunar surface. Despite having received a presidential mandate to prioritize landing on the moon, NASA has dithered. Most recently, the head of the manned spaceflight program, Kathy Lueders, has thrown shade on the Trump Administration’s desire to land astronauts back on the moon by 2024. And Congress remains divided on whether or not to fully fund the proposed Artemis moon mission. There does, however, appear to be overwhelming support within the NASA bureaucracy for the Gateway project, which would essentially see NASA building a smaller version of the dying International Space Station, but in lunar orbit.
Certainly, this is not what President Trump wants. Before abruptly resigning as NASA’s Associate Administrator of Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate earlier this summer, Douglas Loverro informed his colleagues that the Gateway mission would be delayed so that the organization could focus totally on getting Americans back to the lunar surface by 2024. Unsurprisingly, this has elicited a quiet bureaucratic tug-of-war within NASA as entrenched interests want Gateway at all costs and the Trump Administration is understandably concerned about how such a commitment would delay the return of Americans to the moon.
In fact, as Robert Zubrin wrote last year: NASA is saying to the president that, “You can’t do your program until you do my program.” Zubrin is correct. But unless Trump is willing to spend his time cutting deep into NASA’s bureaucracy—its own version of the much-maligned “Deep State”—then complaining about this is a waste of time. If Trump prefers instead to live with NASA as it is, and if the NASA bureaucracy remains committed to building a lunar space station, why not at least endeavor to build a new engineering marvel?
We should not seek to build yet another modular space station that is only moderately more advanced than what’s been built over the last several decades in low-Earth orbit. Instead, we must endeavor to create something entirely new; a station with artificial gravity, as that would be a massive benefit to future spaceflight missions. The only viable way to do this would be to construct a rotating space station. Thus, spending taxpayer money on a rotating space station would be well worth the cost.
Scientists have long postulated that a space station that was at least two kilometers (1.24 miles) wide with an outer ring which rotated at one RPM (rotation per minute), or an outer edge which spun at 224 miles per hour could theoretically produce the gravitational effects that human beings require in order to offset the physical damage that long-term exposure to microgravity does to the human body.
The concept of a rotating space station is hardly new. The controversial father of the US space program, Werner von Braun, envisioned such an outpost orbiting the moon, serving as a rest stop and rallying point for missions going to and from the lunar surface decades ago. As a retired colleague who worked at the Pentagon’s Office of Net Assessment recently quipped to me, “this is all retro tech.”
It may be retro technology in theory but, in practice, we’ve yet to produce a space station that is actually worth the investment (let’s face it, the ISS has mostly been a “boondoggle”). Such a station would not only move forward our understanding of science, but it would also give the United States unparalleled strategic advantages in the critical orbits between the moon and Earth. A rotating space station near the moon would boost the budding space mining and tourism sectors by having an accessible base near their areas of operation on the lunar surface that could be permanently manned by American personnel (presently, there are limits to what the human body can withstand in terms of being in space long-term, due to negative effects of microgravity and radiation–notably beyond the Van Allen Radiation Belt).
On such a rotating space station, also, new methods for preserving human life in space could be experimented with. For example, a group of North Carolina teenagers have figured out a potential cheap solution to the dangers of being exposed to radiation in space: mold.
Here’s what Business Insider had to say about that:
Cladosporium sphaerospermum, an organism that appears to feed on nuclear radiation the same way most plants feed on sunlight. The mold has thrived in Chernobyl’s exclusion zone, the site of the 1986 nuclear meltdown, which is still one of the most radioactive places on Earth […] researchers suggested that if the mold were about 21 centimeters thick, it could provide humans adequate protection from radiation levels on Mars. The protection would be stronger if the mold surrounded an object entirely, they think, instead of just shielding one side as it did in the study.
All of these types of cutting-edge experiments can–and should–be tried on such a newfangled type of revolutionary space station. If only our leaders had the vision and gumption to try it. Space policy is only workable if there is real innovation; newness at all times to keep the masses interested, the money flowing, politicians aware, and to stay ahead of our rivals (all of whom are interested in leap-frogging the Americans in this critical domain). That is why NASA cannot do it alone. They need help from the military in the form of the new branch, the US Space Force. Further, NASA also needs to gain assistance from the private sector–and not just the same large contractors that they normally rely on. NASA must give small start-ups a greater chance, such as SpaceX and Blue Origins.
In fact, a centrifugal space station is already on the minds of the private sector. The Gateway Foundation is a private non-profit group that plans to build a rotating space hotel in Earth’s orbit by 2025. Its planners have designs for the space hotel to be destination for expeditious space tourists blasting into orbit via Richard Branson’s awesome space startup, Virgin Galactic. What NASA should do is step in and provide a massive tranche of investment for the project–with one string attached: instead of building it around Earth, place it around the moon and grant partial ownership of it to NASA. Think of it like a real Deep Space Nine: a hub of commerce, research, and security for the United States in the critical Lagrangian points separating the Earth from the moon.
The Trump appointees who run NASA, such as Director Jim Bridenstine, are clearly committed to the lunar landing mission that the White House wants. It is also evident, though, that the NASA bureaucracy will resist these moves. Moreover, the Democrats in Congress will continue suborning this resistance in an effort to prevent President Trump from gaining a political victory, such as landing the first American female astronaut on the moon.
Perhaps Bridenstine and the political appointees could dangle some carrots to win over some of the bureaucratic stakeholders inimical to sacrificing the Gateway project. The political scientist, Richard Neustadt, theorized that political leaders cannot govern by executive fiat. Effective leaders instead leverage their positions to bargain with the elephantine bureaucracies they manage. So, let NASA understand that the Gateway enthusiasts will get their lunar space station…after Americans are permanently stationed on the moon.
The biggest obstacle to creating a rotating space station is cost. Presently, building anything other than a tiny modular space station with current resources and practices is unfeasible. That calculus changes, though, should NASA permanently station astronauts on the moon and harness the panoply of natural resources from the moon (and use the low gravity of the moon to launch equipment into orbit).
NASA’s bureaucracy might be right about the need for a space station around the moon. They just have their order of operations backwards: first, the United States must establish a permanent presence on the moon and then it can build the space station. If NASA acts boldly now, it can achieve all of its objectives while furthering human spaceflight to all new, exciting levels. But compromises will have to be made along the way…and missions prioritized and new start-ups partnered with to achieve those priorities in efficient and cost-effective ways. If we don’t we’ll cede the high ground to China or any other upstart nation seeking to displace the Americans there.
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