Moon Society Encouraged by Plans for Lunar Base

Melissa Block talks with Dr. Robert Zubrin, president of the Mars Society and owner of Pioneer Astronautics, an aerospace engineering contracting firm. Zubrin is conflicted about the planned lunar base. The Mars Society maintains two testing grounds — in Utah and on an island in the Arctic — to simulate missions to other planets. Block also talks with Peter Kokh, president of the Moon Society. In March, Kokh and others borrowed the Mars Society's desert research station to simulate life on a lunar base. Kokh is mildly excited about NASA's plan to build an actual moon base.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

Well, Ernie may not be convinced, but NASA would like to change his mind.

Unidentified Announcer: Have you ever considered living on the moon? The 1986 National Commission on Space wrote that the solar system is humanity's extended home. You could be a pioneer who begins the settlement of the moon and the planets.

BLOCK: That's part of a promotional video from NASA. Outside NASA, though, even among those who've been dreaming of colonizing space, it was hard to find much enthusiasm today.

Mr. PETER KOKH (Moon Society): We're trying to do this on a shoestring, so that's disappointing. I am also not on the bandwagon to a south polar location.

BLOCK: That's Peter Kokh. He's president of the Moon Society and he thinks the moon base should be more centrally located. Earlier this year, his group held a moon base simulation exercise complete with spacesuits in Utah.

It was the Mars Society that actually built that base. They've been using the Mars Desert Research Station space since 2002. Robert Zubrin is an astronautical engineer and he's president of the Mars Society.

Mr. ROBERT ZUBRIN (Mars Society): You give it a try. You see what works, what doesn't. NASA, with its current moon base, is saying they're going to go to the moon to practice for Mars and that is an entirely valid thing to do, but I think we can actually learn a great deal even before we go to the moon by practicing these missions in the Arctic and the desert.

BLOCK: So would you say that the moon base is a necessary step that NASA should be taking and they're doing the right thing.

Mr. ZUBRIN: Yeah, okay, that's a complicated question because if I were king, we would not be building a moon base. We'd be launching a program to send humans to Mars in ten years.

BLOCK: Wow.

Mr. ZUBRIN: From a technological point of view, we're much closer today to being able to send humans to Mars than we were to being able to send men to the moon in 1961 and we were there eight years later. And while I think it's great that NASA finally has a goal, they've gone for about the past 30 years without any goal at all, basically in programmatic drift.

If we compare this program to the one that Kennedy launched in '61, they're talking about getting back to the moon in twice the time that it took to get there the first time.

Well, of course a certain number of people are going to be inspired by this, a certain number of young people. It's not going to be like it was in the ‘60s. I don't think you can inspire the youth of today with a goal of repeating something that their grandparents' generation did. What we need to do is, the analogous feat for our generation is to go much further than the moon, to go to Mars. And that of course is really where the science is, it's where the challenge is, it's where the future is.

BLOCK: It sounds like you're saying this whole idea of a permanent moon base is just so 20th century.

Mr. ZUBRIN: Well, you know, NASA had plans to have a permanent moon base in the mid-1970s. If Apollo had not been cut short by Nixon, we would have had a permanent moon base by 1975. You know, Mike Griffin has called the current program Apollo on steroids. I think that's a totally accurate term. They've given Apollo some drugs and brought it back to life.

BLOCK: Beyond proving that it's possible, if humans do go to Mars, what would you want to see? What's the goal for you of that exploration?

Mr. ZUBRIN: Initially the goal was scientific. Mars is the Rosetta Stone for letting us know whether life is something that is specific to the earth or a general phenomena in the universe. Mars, like earth, once had oceans. There was once liquid water on the surface of Mars. If the theory is true that life emerges from chemistry wherever you have the right conditions and sufficient time, then life should've appeared on Mars. And if life did appear on Mars, if it appeared in two out of two places, it means life is everywhere in the universe.

On the other hand, if we go to Mars and find out yeah, there was water here, there were rivers, here's a dried up lake, but there was no evidence of progress for life, then that could mean that the development of life on Earth was something exceptional, it involved an element of miracle or chance or whatever you might say, and we could be completely alone.

This is something that has puzzled thinking men and women for thousands of years. We can find it out by going to Mars.

Then beyond that, there's the question of the human future. Mars, unlike the moon, really has the resources for human settlement. All the key elements needed for life, and I might add also for industry, are present on Mars. If we can go to Mars and learn how to live there, then humanity can become a space-faring species with an open future and an open frontier before it.

BLOCK: Well, Dr. Zubrin, thanks very much.

Dr. ZUBRIN: Well, thank you.

BLOCK: Robert Zubrin is president of the Mars Society. He also runs an aerospace firm called Pioneer Astronautics. His book is titled “The Case For Mars.”

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