Watching an interesting documentary called "Fight for Space" which pretty much rips the current space program .... the SLS, it says, is basically a Saturn 5 and Orion ids basically a big Apollo capsule .... and we went to the Moon with a Saturn 5 sixty years ago. Basically, Congress only judged money, not science, and since it could budget a rocket, it did, but didn't bother to consider Why a rocket? Why a huge, heavy-lift rocket? To build Moonbase? Why? If there is no serious plan, there will never be success.
The premise (put forth by that popular TV-Internet-talkshow astrophysicist .... I will get his name later (Neil deGrasse Tyson)) is that the space program originally succeeded because it was considered a military venture---we had to Beat the Russkis---now there is no broad understanding of why to do space exploration. Neil deGrasse Tyson says that humans basically do things for war or profit .... exploration is only native to a tiny fraction of the human species.
I must admit to some confusion over a show ripping the space program for the obvious: yes, of course the SLS is very similar to the Saturn V, though the latter lacked the former's SRBs (solid rocket boosters). Orion is indeed very much like the capsules used in the Apollo program, just scaled up and modernized. At our present level of space flight tech, Physics dictates a lot of the design choices. Similarly, the goal of going exo-LEO, or outside Low Earth Orbit, does the same. That's why you need a heavy lift rocket in the first place: getting past LEO takes even more fuel than getting there, and there are only so many ways of getting the fuel into orbit. Fuel, plus a vehicle with engines to burn it, life support, a cool little buggy to ride around in, some food, and so on. There's a fair argument to be made as to whether going to the Moon is necessary, but we'll get there in a minute.
Given that the U.S. has chosen to return to the Moon, it seems only natural to me that NASA would turn to the program which got the job done the last and only time Humanity undertook such a venture. Ditto its work horse. The Saturn V flew 13 times with no loss of payload or crew. No other vehicle has carried Humans exo-LEO. Ever. The program ended due to lack of political will rather than through any fault of its own. It's fair enough to question the need to return to the Moon or to have gone in the first place. If that need is treated as a given, the SLS and Orion make good sense to me. That said, I'm interested in other perspectives.
It is sad that after 60 years, the best we can do is essentially an update of what was done back then. Nevertheless, that's where we are technologically. Perhaps if we had gone to the Moon and stayed, we'd have more options now. Alas.
As for why we would want to build a Moon base, there are a number of very good reasons. A big one is the fact that the Moon's gravity well is so much shallower than the Earth's. That means far less fuel is needed to lift from the Moon than from the Earth. Better, we know that water exists on the Moon. If you have water, electricity, and some equipment, you can make cryogenic rocket fuel. Literally: water is H2O and can be separated by electrolysis into Oxygen and Hydrogen. Keep these separate, chill until they liquefy, and you're ready to fuel up a rocket! Incidentally, the fuel making process means some Oxygen can be drawn off and used for the human crew to breathe. Always nice when outside is hard vacuum. Mining water in the first place means the crew will always have something to drink.
With a Moon base sporting the facilities to store and maintain spacecraft as well as mine water to make rocket fuel, the rest of the Solar System becomes much more accessible for exploration. The initial cost is quite high, but like very large terrestrial public works projects, the payoff goes on and on. One example among many is that Solar System's asteroids hold more precious metals and similar mineable products than our whole planet ever has. It's likely the Moon is similarly rich in mineable assets beyond water. With no ecology to be ruined, mining is easier and faster. Thanks to the gravitational situation, it's relatively cheap and easy to send cargoes from the Moon to the Earth, if not the other way around. Again the initial cost is high, but the payoff just goes on and on.
On the military front, I must again confess to some confusion: politicians may go on about science and exploration, and those are laudable goals. Goals I support. Despite that, I recogize that the reason the huge checks get written, as it were, is the potential for military advantage or profit. I thought everyone understood that, but I've been a space nerd for most of my life, a military nerd for even longer. I'm not advocating here, merely recognizing what I see as objective reality.
In short, military types are trained to seek control of whatever high ground is to be found in a given area of operations. High ground is harder to attack and easier to defend. If you have the right weapons, control of the high ground grants control over the surrounding lower ground. To a degree.
LEO is the ultimate in high ground, at least until it's possible to go to the Moon. The Moon can potentially be something of an ultimate fortress for controlling happenings on the Earth through the judicious use of artificial meteors. We are admittedly talking sci fi at this point, but just barely. The technologies exist and are mostly well understood but would require development and refinement. Also a lot of infrastructure Moon-side. The Physics is solid, however. The gravitational situation is key. As stated before, going from the Earth to the Moon is difficult and expensive in terms of fuel. Going from the Moon to the Earth is almost laughably easy by comparison.
Add to that the fact that if you get any mass moving fast enough, when it hits something the energy released can easily match or exceed the most powerful nuclear weapons ever built. Change the amount of mass or its speed to adjust yield up or down as necessary. From the Moon to Earth, it's not even necessary to get the mass moving very fast, just enough to break the Moon's gravitation, at which point Earth's gravity grabs and pulls it in.
Using mass and velocity in this manner results in what's known as a Kinetic Energy Weapon or KEW. Something which generates explosive force through mass and sheer speed. Because the projectiles are inert in and of themselves, merely detecting them is a challenge, let alone doing something about them. Replying to such an attack from the Earth is difficult, hard to camouflage, and more easily defeated by a notional Moon based adversary. I know, it sounds silly. Too much silly sci fi for too many years. Nevertheless, the potential threat actually is real. Decades away from fruition at best, but the potential really is there. This has been known and played with in both fiction and scholarly papers since the very early days of spaceflight.
I'm happy to go into further details, but that means going deeper into the weeds. If anyone is interested, perhaps we can start a separate thread.
As for the Moon, it turns out the Chinese are already there. Their present facility is all robotic, but they are working on plans to send humans and establish a manned base. I have nothing against the Chinese people as such, but their Communist government is another story. Indeed, that government has been flexing its muscles on a steadily wider scale for decades now. That they are headed for the Moon calls for a response. Not in terms of armed conflict, but rather to establish an offsetting presence. It may be about countering a potential adversary today, but what we learn in doing so benefits the species in the longer term.
I honestly wish the Soviets' competitor to the Saturn V, the N1, had been successful. If it had, it's likely we would today be celebrating some 60 years of humans living and working on the Moon. The U.S. would have had no choice. I hope that this time around we are able to go there and stay.
While it is true that most large human ventures are driven by the quest for profit or military advantage, there's a much more important reason for supporting space exploration: the survival of our species in the longer term. I'm talking tens or hundreds of thousands of years here, and beyond.
If you think about it, our species presently has all its metaphorical eggs in a single basket. Our entire breeding population resides on one planet. A planet that has been hit by very large meteors in the past and is virtually guaranteed to be hit again in the future. Once more, we're talking tens to hundreds of thousands of years, maybe longer. There are plenty of other hazards, but the point is that until Humans are able to establish self sufficient breeding populations on other worlds or in deep space, our species survives at the whim of the universe. At best.
Humans as a species have our warts and some decidedly ugly sides, but we have a lot of positive potential, too. I'd like to see our species survive. Ideally, we'd take positive, planned action to see to that happy outcome, but that's unlikely. What is more likely is that if it happens at all, our species will stumble its way into long term survival in the manner we have in the past: striving against one another, seeking greater profit and military advantage over potential rivals, firmly focused on the here and now, and little beyond it.
Little matter. I don't have any children, but the survival of the human species matters to me. We are a very young species and may yet succumb to the growing pains of civilization, but I hope not. Establishing self-sufficient extraterrestrial human populations would go a long way toward ensuring our species has the chance to grow up. Going to the Moon and staying there for whatever immediate reasons is a small but important step in the right direction.