Under the Trump administration, Republicans in particular are showing support for a return to the moon, especially if it means some sort of permanent presence there. As always, the price tag is the big question.
Keith Cowing, editor of NASAwatch.com, says the idea this time is for more than just a visit. “They don’t necessarily say go ‘back’ to the moon, but go to the moon with purpose,” he says. “Not just to stop, pick up some rocks and come back, [but] to go there permanently, to set up a base.”
Cowing says the moon could be used as a stepping stone to Mars, but that it’s also a worthwhile destination in its own right. “The folks who want to go to the moon—or back to the moon, if you wish—are not against going to Mars. They just think that they have some unfinished business on the moon.”
Mining the moon is a commercial possibility. But in addition to whatever mineral wealth may be discovered there, Cowing says water ice at the poles could be separated into liquid hydrogen and oxygen for use as rocket fuel for further exploration and settlement.
If, say, the Chinese build a base on the moon, Cowing says the national security implications are mostly psychological. “I think the issue of who’s on the moon and who’s not,” he says, “is more of a competitive thing than it is any risk to anything that’s actually important.” He says “weaponizing the moon” wouldn’t make sense, because a nuclear missile launched from the moon could be shot down in the three days it would take to reach earth.
Cowing says the government is already partnering with private businesses such as Elon Musk’s SpaceX to get things done in space. “Now you’ve a handful of billionaires with, as they say, nontrivial resources, who can launch things into space because they want to,” he notes. “Elon Musk wants to go to Mars, and apparently he’s going to.”