Dennis Wingo has published an interesting, thoughtful, and well-written piece on lunar economic development. Unfortunately, it’s marred by a false premise.

As usual, Wingo starts with his firmly held conviction that “the industrialization of the Moon is the necessary and logical first goal of the second American space age.”

Ever since the Bush Vision of Space Exploration was announced in 2004, Dennis Wingo has been locked in a mighty argument with Dr. Robert Zubrin of the Mars Society over whether the Moon or Mars is the “logical first goal.” Both sides have wasted too much time and effort on this debate, which concerns one of the least important questions of our time.

The question is unimportant because it’s badly formulated. Logic is only as good as its premises. In this case, both sides are proceeding from a false promises – that the best way to create a sustainable space program is pick a bright, shiny object in the sky and head toward it at flank speed.

The United States did that with Project Apollo in the 1960’s. Under the leadership of President John F. Kennedy, NASA mobilized the industrial resources of an entire nation to achieve a goal which many thought unattainable with the technology of the day. Apollo succeeded, and yet, Apollo achieved very little of lasting value. The foothold on the Moon was quickly abandoned, the Saturn rocket assembly lines were dismantled, and several hundred pounds of Moon rocks – the only tangible return from the Moon landings – were locked away in laboratories and museums, safely protected by “Don’t Touch” signs.

Like Zubrin, Wingo wants the United States to score another home run in space. But as the late G. Harry Stine pointed out, in the same context, you can’t score a home run without touching all the bases. Development of the Moon is certainly a necessary and logical goal for the new space age, but proclaiming it to be the first goal is like trying to score a home run without touching first, second, or third.

To put it another way, debating whether the Moon or Mars should be the first goal is like early aviation pioneers debating whether the goal for air travel should be transatlantic or transpacific flights, while ignoring all of the hard work needed to develop aircraft for inter-city and transcontinental flights. Of course, such debates never happened in aviation. Our forefathers were too sensible for that. Unfortunately, many in the space community seem determined to repeat the fleeting success of Apollo rather than the enduring success of the aviation industry.

There is still an enormous amount of work to be done in near Earth space. The commercial Dragon and Cygnus capsules which Wingo mentions have not even demonstrated their ability to carry humans into space yet – nor do they represent the be-all and end-all of commercial space transportation.

Yes, In Situ Resources Utilization (ISRU) on the Moon can greatly reduce the need for resupply from Earth and partly offset the high cost of space transportation – but only partly. ISRU will not replace all items that must be supplied from Earth, and it will take time to set up. Long-term cost reductions are useless if the initial startup costs are prohibitive. The idea that ISRU and Cheap Access To Space are antagonistic, rather than complementary, is one of the fundamental misconceptions of the lunar-development community.

This commentary will likely produce an outcry that we are asking to “slow down” lunar development for the sake of near-Earth space development. Nothing could be farther from the truth. The reality is that a robust infrastructure in near-Earth space, including a low-cost transportation infrastructure, will speed the development of the Moon – and Mars, and [fill in your favorite destination].

It is not too early to start creating incentives for deep-space exploration and development, as Dennis Wingo has proposed, but we shouldn’t imagine that the excitement of one Giant Leap outweighs the important work that needs to be done closer to home. If we fall into the Apollo trap once again, the Moon will remain a planet too far.

Written by Astro1 on July 25th, 2012 , Space Exploration (General)

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    plainstud commented

    yeah, i guess when the budget for space gets fought over and no one can get their dream project done they lose themselves in the fight….. they can fight all they want i just hope in 5 years the price will get lower for space access and we will have what is a starting of a space infrastructure because if it does not we are not making progress.

    July 26, 2012 at 12:08 am