In last week’s rant (hydrogen vs. methane vs. kerosene for rocket fuel), I ended asking, Why go to the moon, anyway? This week: why we shouldn’t (although we are…). First, a couple of numbers:

Between 1969 and 1972, starting more or less from scratch, NASA put 12 men, in six separate missions, on the moon for about $300 billion in today’s dollars. Fifty years on, the Artemis program will likely have cost around $100 billion by the time two more people (including, gasp!, a woman) on the moon in 2026. Or 2027. Or… That’s using technology, materials and systems developed during and since Apollo, including four actual RS-25 rocket motors once used on the space shuttle. (FWIW: Estimated cost of eliminating malaria worldwide thru 2020: $9 billion.)

And for what? We’ve been there, done that, all that’s new is NASA’s novel rationalizations for going back. In the 1960s, it was all about beating the Russians — the space race was reason enough to pour money and resources into the Apollo program, which Nixon ended prematurely to help finance the war in Vietnam. Like the space shuttle and the International Space Station, our return to the moon is a means in search of an end.

The new official rationalizations are:

  1. to extract water from permanently-shadowed craters at the moon’s poles, electrolyzing it into oxygen and hydrogen for rocket fuel and for energy production from fuel cells;
  2. to mine for rare-earth minerals as resources run out here on Earth;
  3. to explore the moon for the knowledge it will give scientists about the formation of Earth and the rest of the solar system;
  4. to test and develop techniques and equipment to go farther, in particular, to Mars;
  5. to justify the billions already spent on heavy-lift rockets at taxpayers’ expense

Regarding (1), the resources required to extract water from rock on the moon (at minus 230 degrees Celsius), and to build a vast solar array to process it into H2 and O2 (which will require elaborate storage facilities) are nearly beyond imagination, certainly something decades and billions of dollars away. Ditto (2) — you don’t just send Caterpillars and extraction plants to the moon and wait for deliveries of cobalt and iridium and nickel to magically appear from the skies. (3) Can be done, is being done, remotely. (4) The moon is a poor analogy for Mars. Actually, Earth—its sister planet three billion years ago—is a better analogy. And technologies developed and refined on the ISS (space station) are much more applicable to journeying to Mars than anything that could be achieved on the lunar surface. (5) Sunk cost fallacy.

The real reasons are:

  1. to satisfy politicians and constituents who benefit from NASA’s contracts, in particular those in Florida, Texas and Alabama;
  2. to keep one step head of China’s ambitions for the moon. China recently landed three robotic missions on the moon and, quoting NASA administrator Bill Nelson, “We have to be concerned that they would say, ‘This is our exclusive zone.’”

Here’s the ever-passionate Bob Zubrin, president of the Mars Society, on the topic.

Meanwhile, it’s easy to come up with reasons not to go back to the moon, including:

  1. Microgravity: 18% that of Earth (vs. Mars’ 38%);
  2. Radiation — a separate column in itself. Trust me, this is a big deal;
  3. Dust.

You don’t hear much about moon dust, but it’s probably the biggest problem we’re going to encounter there. Here’s Gene Cernan, commander of Apollo 17, the last moon mission: “…dust is probably one of our greatest inhibitors to a nominal operation on the moon. I think we can overcome other physiological or physical or mechanical problems except dust.”

Buzz Aldrin’s bootprint, July 20, 1969. (NASA)

For billions of years, the moon has been bombarded by micrometeorites, resulting in a three-foot thick layer (the regolith) of fine-grained particles, invisible to the human eye. Lacking natural weathering, these sharp and jagged particles penetrated Apollo astronauts’ three-layer spacesuits, scratched their visors and got into the LEM’s computers and mechanical mechanisms — that was in just three days. Lunar dust is 50% silicon dioxide, the same stuff that causes silicosis in the lungs of miners and stonemasons.

(For a competing — read, wrong — POV, read this.)

So yeah, dust. Skip the moon. If we’re going to go anywhere, let’s go to Mars.