Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Space Race Part Two

China launched its first lunar probe today, sending a clear signal that the new Space Race is now underway. The Chinese Chang'e-1 rocket is expected to reach lunar orbit on November 5. China is not the only newcomer in the race to establish a lunar colony, however. Japan placed a probe in lunar orbit several weeks ago, and India has announced plans to launch a lunar probe in April 2008. Ironically, the countries that are falling behind in this new space race are the two original competitors, the US and Russia. (CNN: Chinese rocket blasts off to moon).

The Soviet launch of Sputnik triggered the first space race, seen by the US and USSR as both politically and militarily necessary. Unfortunately, interest in continuing the exploitation of space resources waned following the series of successful US lunar landings in the 1970s. Since then, the US and Russian manned space programs have essentially floundered without purpose or cause with little progress being made in close to 30 years.

All of this is about to change, and once again the target is the moon. Now before anyone dismisses a lunar base as too expensive and scientifically irrelevant, consider both the nations against which we are competing and the real reasons behind that competition. From both an economic and a military standpoint, we cannot afford to have China, India, or Japan - let alone Russia - establish the first successful lunar colonies. It's essential for the US to establish that beachhead while forcing the rest to vie for second place.

First and foremost, there are serious energy considerations that are driving the new race to the moon. The lunar surface is believed to be a major source of Helium-3, an isotope of Helium that has only one neutron instead of two. Helium-3 is rare on earth, but is considered an excellent fuel source for nuclear fusion and is believed to be in abundance on the moon. Better still, it's considered environmentally friendly since the nuclear reaction involving that isotope does not produce any radioactive waste. Controlling the lunar Helium-3 resources puts any nation in the driver's seat when it comes to securing a 21st century energy solution.

Secondly, and equally important, are the military advantages inherent in a lunar base. While there are treaties between the US and Russia pertaining to the non-militarization of space, those treaties do not apply to the current crop of contestants. In fact, it was China that used a land-based missile to destroy an old satellite in orbit last January in a move that sent shock waves through the military communities around the world. Establishing a permanent base on Earth's nearest neighbor is a military necessity.

What is of most concern today is the current lackluster attitude in the US towards returning to the moon. NASA has been on the political defensive for several years thanks to a less-than-impressive safety record in the manned program and a relatively poor batting average with unmanned probes. Current lunar mission plans have us trailing China by at least a decade, and there does not seem to be any desire either within NASA or the US Congress to prioritize manned lunar missions to any great extent.

We're missing the boat, and what's at stake this time is far more critical than anything we faced in 1969. We need to secure a lunar base before any of our economic or military rivals. It's essential for our national security, and it's essential for our economic security. We've just spent the last 70 years overly dependent on foreign powers for our energy needs. Let's not repeat that mistake. Let's ensure that we are in control of the 21st century energy sources, and the way to do that is to ensure our control of the Helium-3 reserves on the lunar surface.

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