The Moon and America’s (and the world’s) defense

A lunar outpost might initially have a mission not contemplated by many previous studies for such facilities. (credit: NASA)

President Trump has directed NASA to aim for the human exploration of Mars in the 2030s by way of the Moon. My proposal for a Moon base is not a redirection of that NASA goal, but rather to set a goal for America’s military space program—a space program, in terms of funding, that is about as large as NASA’s. While there are synergies to be had between exploring and exploiting the Moon and exploring Mars, redirecting NASA’s focus from Mars to the Moon can only hinder, rather than advance, Mars exploration.

This plan would be carried out in three stages. Step 1 is to build a base on the Moon to enhance the United States nuclear deterrent, not by using the Moon as a base from which to launch a nuclear attack, but to have the military build a base to support underground testing of America’s nuclear weapons, both old and new. The scientific knowledge of the geology and history of the Moon, as well as a better understanding of the resources available on the Moon, would result from drilling the deep holes needed to support the underground testing.

When the bombs are exploded, a network of seismometers on the surface of the Moon would provide not only test results for the bomb detonation, but also lunar geology data. The budding NewSpace cislunar industry can be kickstarted by the program to install the seismometers, which can be an entirely robotic task, and by making equipment and supply runs between Earth and the Moon base.

While this Moon base would initially be an American-only project, it would make sense to invite allied members of the nuclear club to build and staff the facility and use it to test their own weapons. The logical candidates are the United Kingdom and France. Depending upon the geopolitical situation, both Israel and India might also be invited to participate. If the North Korea situation continues to deteriorate Japan may also wish to join the effort.

This could be a model for an international effort for the human exploration of Mars. From a political perspective, having personnel from multiple countries on site will help allay fears in other countries that the facility would be used to base nuclear weapons rather than test them. A policy of allowing only one bomb on the Moon at a time should be in place. International observers and members of the press should be welcome. Spy satellites in orbit around the Moon should provide Russia and China with a high level of assurance that no basing of weapons is occurring. And, of course, should Russia or China desire to build their own testing bases, with similar international monitoring, they should be able to do so.

It has been 25 years since the United States last tested a nuclear weapon. The newest designs are 40 years old. Both the reliability of our decades-old nuclear weapons, and the operational readiness of the new replacement weapons that are to be designed and built under the estimated $500-billion weapons and delivery systems modernization effort, will remain in question no matter how much computer simulation is done. This is a huge investment by America’s taxpayers. Should we not be certain that we are getting our bang for the buck?

As a testing area for old and new nuclear weapons, the Moon base would probably meet all participants’ needs within five to ten years after becoming operational.

Step 2 would be to convert the base into a science and R&D center. This would include serving as a testbed and training ground for systems and people going to Mars, such as spacecraft, habitats, environmental control systems, telerobotically operated equipment, dust mitigation systems, and so on. Many of these would phase in while engaged in Step 1.

The Space Launch System (SLS) would get a good workout sending payloads to the Moon. The SLS is critical to NASA’s Mars program, yet it will be ready ten years before it is needed for Mars. The sustainability of the production and launch capacity until the 2030s is questionable without using the system frequently in the intervening period.

Looking to the future of Mars settlement, the Moon would be the ideal location to restart the nuclear thermal rocket program, which could dramatically reduce the time for traveling to and from Mars. During the latter stage of the Moon base’s existence, the participants could be expanded to countries not members of the nuclear club.

Step 3 combines, in an internationally-monitored and -controlled way, the combination of nuclear thermal rockets and nuclear weapons or other payloads, such a gravity or electromagnet tractors, to provide a planetary defense system able to get an early jump on intercepting incoming asteroids or comets that present an existential threat to life on Earth.

Of course, the most controversial aspect of the proposed program is the transport of nuclear weapons on launch vehicles—in essence, intercontinental missiles—from the Earth to the Moon. I believe this can be overcome if the fissile material can be separated from the rest of the bomb, then encased in protective shell that can survive the worst possible launch mishap, and can securely signal its location if it crashes back to Earth on land or sea. The rest of the bomb would be similarly treated and launched independently of the core. International observers can and should confirm that components have been separated.

A second objection is that this would violate the Outer Space Treaty, which the United States has ratified. Yes, it does: Article IV. It also would violate the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty, which President Clinton signed, but which the United States Senate has not ratified. Our compliance since 1992 is a unilateral action and any president can restart tests. The United States and its partners in this project must terminate their association with these treaties—which, at least with respect to the Outer Space Treaty, needs a serious rewrite anyway. In this Trumpian era this should not be too hard to do. Perhaps the President can negotiate a better deal: a Lunar Nuclear Testing and Development treaty that would govern international participation, monitoring, and inspection.

Establishing human civilization on Mars, enhancing our nuclear deterrent, and providing a capable system for intercepting asteroids on a collision course with Earth are efforts to ensure the viability of human civilization. Mars is named after the god of war, so perhaps an assist from the military to get there is not an unreasonable thing to ask for.