There is only place to begin humanity’s exploration into space. Regular journeys to Mars, closer to the Sun, or past Jupiter, as regular as they can be, depend on them. Semi-permanent lunar bases are necessary for space exploration in the 21st century and beyond.
It’s hard to imagine humans going anywhere without them.
The Moon, indeed all of space, is not a political race to be won, given a trophy, and off you go back home. Colonizing the Moon will play an immense role in humanity’s new era in the third millennium. Yet it is thus impossible to escape the totality of lunar exploration.
Scientific experiments in space will discover or invent saviors, oddities, and rarities over the coming centuries that can barely be dreamt of. We could make contact with other sentient life. An age of discovery is rising slowly upon humanity’s long term horizon, but with those types of ages comes war and corporations, usually resulting in a breakdown - or evolution - in society.
The clash of science vs. military vs. economic use of space will define space exploration as much as its discoveries.
The Space Race of the 1960’s to the 1990’s was a prelude to what could happen on the Moon - this time the race wouldn’t be so quick to end. But space politics are also likely to be cyclical, whether corresponding to Earth politics or creating an independent cycle. As such, the reverse situation could occur on the Moon.
America and Russia competed individually to reach space and the Moon, then united afterward to build the International Space Station. With a lunar base, the participants would group together until they finished together, before gradually splitting apart and fracturing the political lunarscape.
Developing the first semi-permanent lunar structures is likely to mimic and expand on the technology pioneered through the ISS. Not the first outposts, which could be developed by individual states, but the first established lunar center. As with space components of the ISS, lunar structures will be standardized and designed to be assembled piece by piece over a decade or longer.
The ISS launched in 1998 and, after installing 16 modules, is expected to be completed in 2011. The total process could take three or more times as long to build a lunar base, but will follow a similar pattern as the ISS.
As political scientists, who participates in this process is of particular concern to us. The ISS is a collaborative of America, Russia, the EU, and Japan. Any new collective will attract the attention of China and India, multiplying the geopolitical match-ups. The ISS has put aside politics because of the magnitude in task and danger, and the first lunar base could rally the same spirit, trumping nationalism and greed.
Conversely, the ISS is not the same premise is a lunar base. They are created with diametric functions in mind. The ISS is has a scientific goal, whether that knowledge is applied militarily, economically, or health wise. A lunar base comes attached with direct military and economic goals beyond research at the ISS.
Humans will go to the Moon to learn but also to land grab, militarize, resource harvest, and to set up tourism. All of these purposes involve capitalism and capitalism is another word for competition, which is a few steps away from war.
Earth’s most powerful states will likely devote their resources to an International Moon Station (IMS). The task appears too difficult for any one entity, government or private, and so an IMS is the rational prediction. But competition exists over deserts, oil, fish, gold, and plenty of other terrestrial semi-valuable.
It is no less rational to predict that the same competition will exist for the Moon’s best views, prettiest natural structures, and best spots for military bases and mining/factory hubs.
Locations to construct solar energy systems will be especially critical to maintaining life on the Moon. No matter what the reality turns out to be, we can also be sure that elements in every world power and major energy/engineering corporation has its eyes on helium 3. Popular Mechanic estimated in 2004 that helium 3 is worth 40,000$ per ounce, barring the market and technology to process it.
The has price fluctuated over the decade, but always remains a dozen times more precious than platinum. There will be competition unless helium 3 is disproved as a second generation fusion energy source. And regardless, humans compete violently and non-violently for any given terrestrial prize and the Moon will be no different.
This anticipated competition is the overriding reason why America, or any super power hopeful for that matter, must be planning for a lunar base right now if it wants to be ready when humans return after 2020. For a while they will be forced together, but for long long is another story.
We have no way of knowing the true motivation of America or China, the EU, Russia, or India at their deepest political levels. But we suspect they think the same as we do.