[OUTLOOK]Moon base a costly, tough project

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[OUTLOOK]Moon base a costly, tough project

Last week the National Aeronautics and Space Administration announced an ambitious plan to build a permanent human-stationed moon base by the year 2024. Before the actual construction, the agency will send robots to the moon for further exploration starting in 2008. When the next-generation space shuttles are developed, they will fly back and forth to the moon to deliver construction materials needed for the base.
In 1969, in the heat of the space race with the former Soviet Union, the United States succeeded in launching Apollo 11, the first-manned mission to land on the moon. Even until quite recently, there was controversy that the moon landing had been a fabrication. A Fox TV program six years ago presented 16 different “proofs” that the the landing on the moon could have been an elaborate lie. NASA laughed the allegation off but the controversy is still being pursued by some skeptics.
Why is the United States going back to the moon after already reaching it some 40 years ago? What is it trying to achieve through a permanent moon base, which would cost the U.S. government an astronomical amount of money? Is this a technically feasible plan?
Of course the moon base would be a great leap for mankind. The moon holds a vast supply of helium that could be used to meet the energy supply demand on Earth. Helium is used as fuel for nuclear fusion power.
Also, the moon base would be ideal as a space launch pad for exploration missions to Mars and beyond. In short, the moon base would provide humankind with a foundation for space exploration. However, the moon plan holds many dangers and problems.
Take, for example, the international space station that is currently being constructed some 350 kilometers above earth. The initial estimated cost for constructing a space station when it was first devised in 1984 was $17 billion.
However, unforeseen glitches and delays in the construction meant that the accumulated cost of building and operating the station could snowball to over $100 billion. The station, which was initially planned by the United States alone, was obviously too big a risk for one nation to carry by itself.
So in 1992, the United States invited 15 countries including Russia, Japan, Canada and 11 European countries to build an international space station. Unfortunately, the tragic destruction of the Space Shuttle Columbia in 2003 has delayed the completion of the space station until 2010. Even this completion date is uncertain with continued interruptions to space shuttle launches.
Moreover, in 2010 the three shuttles now in use will have reached their full lifespan and be put out of service. Ultimately, the completion of the space station will depend on the development of next-generation shuttles. All this could mean that the international space station may never be completed.
NASA’s moon exploration and base construction plan might cost even more than the international space station. Experts see the cost of constructing the base alone at over $100 billion. Add to that the cost of exploration and research and development for all sorts of auxiliary equipment and the total cost could easily top $1 trillion.
That would be approximately 1,000 trillion won, an amount five times Korea’s national budget.
Apart from the financial difficulties of constructing a moon base, there are also problems on the technological side. Above all, this plan requires an alternative system to the rocket that is now the only mode of transportation to outer space.
The rocket is a highly complex, inefficient machine with a high probability of failure. It is very unlikely that humans will succeed in building a base in outer space or do space travel depending entirely on rockets for transportation. Even if a more efficient transportation system is developed, there are still unsolved problems and obstacles to building a base on the surface of the moon.
The moon’s gravity is only one-sixth that of the Earth and the base would have to withstand a continuous shower of small meteorites. There is no atmosphere surrounding the moon that covers and protects the surface. This would mean that the base would constantly be damaged and in need of repair.
The international space station has taken over 25 years and is still at a stage of uncertain completion.
We probably will have to wait even longer for bases to be built on the moon and on Mars.

*The writer is a professor of space engineering at Hankuk Aviation University. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Chang Young-keun
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