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Moon colony mooted to spur U.S. technology

Will the cost of returning to the moon reap benefits in scientific and technological breakthroughs?

CORRECTION: The original version of this story included Teflon among products spun off from the space program. NASA used Teflon, but it was not invented by the space program. The text has been corrected.

Kai Ryssdal: The Republican presidential candidates talked about a lot of things in their debate last night: Immigration, health care -- and, for a good 10 or 12 minutes or so, whether or not we should build a permanent colony on the moon. Newt Gingrich wants NASA to offer prizes to encourage private businesses to invest in a lunar colony. For more on the costs and possible benefits, we turned to Marketplace's Bob...Moon.


Bob Moon: If this idea sounds vaguely familiar, it is: In 2004, then-President George W. Bush laid out a $100 billion proposal for a permanent moon base. It would be a launching pad to what he called "worlds beyond our own."

 

George W. Bush, speaking Jan. 14, 2004: As our knowledge improves, we'll develop new power generation, propulsion, life support and other systems that can support more distant travels.

Supporters said those advances in technology could lead to new sources of energy and other benefits back on Earth. Technological spin-offs have long been used to justify spending on space. Leroy Chiao is a former Space Station commander.

Leroy Chiao: The neat thing about a space program is, you don't know what technical spin-offs will come out of it. But you know, in the Apollo program, even the most conservative estimates show that it returned two-to-one, you know, per dollar spent, on spin-offs and making life better on the Earth.

The first moon program brought us everything from polarized sunglasses to the thermal foil we use to wrap frozen food.   At last night's debate, Sen. Rick Santorum pointed out another potential benefit: Inspiration.

Rick Santorum: We need to inspire. One of the big problems we have in our country today is that young people are not getting involved in math and science and not dreaming big dreams.

Problem is, the Bush idea never really inspired the nation -- or, more-importantly, budget-makers. President Obama killed the moon colony plan soon after taking office, amid tightening budgets. I'm Bob Moon for Marketplace.

About the author

Bob Moon is Marketplace’s senior business correspondent, based in Los Angeles.
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What has happened to common sense? Of course we can't spend money on space exploration when we have so many other immediate problems.

Even as an engineer who spent years working on satellite programs, I have to correct the erroneous assertion that teflon was invented by NASA or in conjunction with the space program. A quick web search will show otherwise. How do these sorts of myths continue to exist?

Straight from NASA : "Tang, Teflon, and Velcro, are not spinoffs of the Space Program.... NASA also raised the celebrity status of Teflon, a material invented for DuPont in 1938, when the Agency applied it to heat shields, space suits, and cargo hold liners."

http://www.sti.nasa.gov/tto/spinfaq.htm

This is not the way to get students more interested and involved in science and engineering. If you want more science and engineering majors, stop shipping engineering and R & D jobs overseas or displacing them with professionals from other countries. Contrary to the suggestions of business leaders and lobbyists who advocate for more H-1B visas, our public education system is not a socialist failure; our private industry model is a capitalist failure, on a global scale. Americans are not stupid or blind. They’re not going to waste years of their lives in college and get thousands of dollars in debt for an income that averages out at about $40k a year, for jobs that are often offered on a contract basis or secured through a temp. agency.

I've seen several comments made in various places of people criticizing Obama for killing the Space Shuttle program, too. I always have to point out the error of their ways.

While ending the moon program (which wasn't really any fully-developed plan, btw, just a vague concept) WAS Obama's move, ending the shuttle program was an idea hatched under George W's regime, reputedly in response to the Columbia disaster.

Bush didn't like having bad things happen on his watch.

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