Why doesn’t the United States have a base on the Moon? Because getting to the Moon was a matter of national security. Setting up a permanent base there? Not so much.
Through the fog of history it’s really, really easy for Americans to forget why we went to the Moon in the first place. It was essentially a proof of concept for shooting intercontinental ballistic missiles at Moscow. And for the Soviets, a sign that they could launch ICBMs that could hit Washington, D.C. While ideas about shooting bombs and lasers from space have a long history, there’s no real tactical advantage to having your guns mounted on the moon. At least not yet.
The space race of the 1960s wasn’t simply a pissing contest between the world’s two superpowers—it was a trial run for the end of the world. After the Soviet Union launched Sputnik in October of 1957, the US was on high alert. It had become apparent that America was lagging behind in rocket technology; or if it wasn’t, that it soon might be. The establishment of NASA and ARPA (now DARPA) in 1958 were ways to remedy that under the guise of both civilian-led and military agencies respectively.
An article by Dr. Lee Alvin DuBridge, published in the February 1958 issue of Engineering and Science, explained the context post-Sputnik:
The first demand which the Sputnik situation puts on us, of course, is to examine our military situation. Though the wild statements that the Russians have suddenly zoomed into a position of military supremacy are wrong, it is certain that there are grave dangers. Clearly, everyone now realizes that we need to accelerate our efforts to counter that Russian threat.
Which brings us to the uncomfortable idea that most things America produces are in service to our need for military supremacy. The bulk of practical scientific endeavors after the second World War had military applications. If something didn’t, and simultaneously had a high price tag, it probably wasn’t going to get funding from the US government.
Again from DuBridge in 1958:
At the same time, it is clear that our military strength is only one aspect of our national strength. Military technology is one branch of technology; it can be no stronger than the main structure of technology itself. Rockets and radar and atomic weapons are not invented by generals and admirals; they are invented by civilian scientists and engineers working in laboratories-often in laboratories where the Government is paying the bills. These civilians draw on all available knowledge in the world of science and engineering to develop weapons and techniques which the military services require.
As president of CalTech, DuBridge was acutely aware of the ways that the scientific community helped push military technology forward. But how does any of this explain why we don’t have a lunar habitat? Because when you look at the American space program from the perspective of the Defense and Intelligence communities, there’s no real incentive to build something like a permanent Moon base.
“Because we can” doesn’t get much funding. And if we look at history, it never has. The space program wasn’t about going to the Moon simply because we could or because we had some grand noble purpose and desire to expand the knowledge of humanity.
No matter how many fantastic civilian technologies can be credited to the space program, we can’t forget the underlying reason that we go into space. And until the United States sees a tactical advantage to establishing a permanent moon base, we’re not going to see one.
Image: An atomic cloud rises July 25, 1946 during the ‘Baker Day’ blast at Bikini Island in the Pacific via Getty