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Newsweek
updated 1/23/2004 11:18:02 AM ET 2004-01-23T16:18:02
WEB EXCLUSIVE

The Earth has depleted all its natural resources. Life has become grim and hopeless. The only viable option for mankind is to colonize the moon, mine its surface for minerals and provide a limitless source of clean energy for the home planet.

That's not just the basic plotline of the disastrous 1975 television series "Space: 1999," it also describes President Bush's latest energy proposal. You might not have heard this idea in Bush's "Back to the Moon" speech last week (mostly because there was so much to ridicule that plenty of eye-roll inspiring proposals slipped past reporters), but the White House's latest long-term strategy for dealing with the global energy crisis is to turn the moon into a huge mining colony.

Here is what the president said: "The moon is home to abundant resources. Its soil contains raw materials that might be harvested and processed into rocket fuel or breathable air." Here is what the president meant: "My friends at Halliburton are very eager to strip-mine the moon and since most of my policies seem to come from outer space anyway, I said, 'What the hell?'"
As a fan of "Star Trek" and "Total Recall," I am, of course, in love with the president's plan to harvest the mineral wealth of the moon. As an American, I'm dubious. Most important, as an entrepreneur, I'm saddened that someone out-hustled me in setting up a crackhouse on Pennsylvania Avenue, next to the White House (seriously, if Hollywood science-fiction is now the basis of American public policy, someone is on the pipe at 1600).

This is not to undermine American ingenuity. We all know that, given enough resources, there are plenty of planets, comets, asteroids, black holes and nebulae that we could strip-mine, defile and abandon as a slag heap. We're good at this kind of thing. But the Bush speech is nothing more than sci-fi--low-budget sci-fi at that. The president's $1 billion allocation of new funds is the public policy equivalent of most lame science fiction: big boulders made of painted Styrofoam, spaceship crashes that are dramatized by simply shaking the camera and having the crew members lurch from side to side and time-travelers who routinely interact with their younger selves (which, as anyone knows, would rupture the space-time continuum!).

But give Bush more credit: He's not listening sci-fi writers in Hollywood; as always, he listens to the econo-fi writers at companies like Enron, Halliburton, Boeing and Lockheed. As The Washington Post reported last week, the White House started revisiting these companies' long-held fantasies once China put a man in orbit last year. Suddenly, a new space race was on--and we didn't want the Chinese to get back to the moon before we did.

Thankfully, Bush campaign contributors are hot on the case! Indeed, a key Halliburton scientist once admitted in Oil & Gas Journal (what? You don't subscribe?) that human achievement is only a small part of why we should explore space. Rather, it represents "an unprecedented opportunity for both investigating the possibility of life on Mars and for improving our abilities to support oil and gas demands on Earth." In other words, space exploration is really space exploitation.

In fairness to the president, I did a little research and found the microscopic grain of truth in what he was saying. It turns out that there is, indeed, an abundant quantity of something called helium-3 just under the surface of the moon. Forget for a second that we still lack the technology to use helium-3 for anything except making your voice sound really high and squeaky. Thanks to nuclear fusion, helium-3 will someday be that long-envisioned clean-burning, limitless energy supply.

Problem is, the Earth is actually running out of helium. I could tell you why we're running out of helium, but you probably already believe that it's all Bill Clinton's fault, so I won't bother changing your mind. The fact is, we're running out of helium...fast. How fast? Let's put it this way, by the year 2104, the Macy's Thanksgiving Parade is going to suck.

But the moon has so much helium-3 that it practically floats. Scientists estimate that the million tons of helium-3 on the moon could provide enough energy to power the Earth for thousands of years (or 28 Hummer-driving soccer moms for three weeks). Of course, these estimates depend on which scientists are making the estimates—the ones who predicted we'd all be living in a utopia of perfectly fitting unitards or the ones who've crashed two space shuttles in 17 years.

In either case, I don't trust these space scientists as far as I can throw them (on Earth). Two weeks ago, these same guys were scrambling to figure out why the International Space Station—which is sort of the lynchpin of all future space exploration—is leaking air, a substance that is considered extremely important to astronauts.

And then, last week, these space guys were breaking out the champagne just because the Mars rover, Spirit, was able to roll four feet on Martian soil (imagine that, a solar-powered SUV! How come these rocket scientists can't find a civilian spin-off for that?). And what did they find on Mars in their first few days of motoring? As Reuters reported, Spirit took pictures of "clumps of fine particles that may be stuck together by the Martian equivalent of Epsom salts." Epsom salts! So, at least for now, all we're working towards is an unlimited supply of medication for sore feet!

But someday, we'll get fuel—if we give the sun, the moon and the stars to companies like Halliburton. Former astronaut Harrison Schmitt (the last man to leave his footprints on the moon) said that private companies would gladly rape the moon if they can be assured of "a competitive rate-of-return." (In other words, taxpayers pay for the rockets, NASA provides the know-how and private companies skim the profits.) Schmitt added that scratching the surface of the moon is just scratching the surface. There's a lot more helium-3 on Saturn and Uranus. Watch out, my friends, these people are so desperate to make a buck they're even looking at Uranus!

But the biggest problem as I see it is that mining the moon for U.S. profit violates the Outer Space treaty of 1967 (not that the Bush Administration has shown much loyalty to international treaties). Then again, as a sci-fi fan, I hope Bush goes ahead and claims the moon's resources for the United States. That'll set up a truly titanic battle: The United States vs. China. World War III. On the moon! Now there's a sci-fi movie I'd pay to see!

Gersh Kuntzman is also Brooklyn bureau chief for The New York Post. His website is at http://www.gersh.tv

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