Why Are We Abandoning the High Ground?

China’s first lunar rover has successfully separated from the probe that carried it into space has and made its first track upon the surface of the moon, Chinese state media reported Sunday.

Here’s the rub:

The soft landing—the term for a landing in which neither the spacecraft nor its equipment is damaged—was the first on the moon by any nation in 37 years

And not only was it not done by us, it was done by a nation with clear enmity toward us and toward our friends and allies.  Moreover, the People’s Republic of China is making no bones about its future plans for the moon.  They’re planning a sample return mission in their present Chang’e series as soon as 2017 and an astronaut landing after 2020.

The US’ space program?  Well, we don’t have much of one, and none at all where the moon is concerned.  We send the occasional robot off to Mars (those are spectacular missions, doing important science, to be sure), but that’s about it.  American astronauts have to thumb rides to the space station on Russian rockets.  American private companies are (finally!) figuring out how to send supply missions all the way to the space station.  That’s about it.

As for the moon, we got nothing.

Never mind that the back side of the moon is an excellent platform for exploring space.  Never mind that the regolith on the moon—all that moon “soil”—is rich in rocket fuel (it’s loaded with oxygen and aluminum, each a key ingredient).  Or that producing that rocket fuel on the moon and loading it into rockets there considerably cheapens exploration of the rest of the solar system, since all that mass doesn’t have to be carried uphill out of Earth’s gravity.

Never mind that the moon is militarily useful high ground: rocks dropped from there impact Earth’s surface with force of nuclear bombs, and by destroying our launch facilities, any rock throwers will be able to deny us access to space entirely.  Other weapons launched from the moon will be able to destroy our satellites with impunity, which with no launch facilities, we’ll be unable to replace.

But we’re ceding all of that to the PRC.

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