Yesterday, Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich turned heads when he announced his plan to establish a permanent moon base by the year 2020. Gingrich's critics were swift to attack the practicality of his plan, as well as point out that he was pandering to America's wounded sense of virility stemming from the faltering of our own space program. And yet Newt might not be completely crazy. In fact, a number of science-fiction writers would likely agree that there are more benefits of lunar colonization than just positive polling numbers among Star Trek fans.
Perhaps the most complete and detailed portrait of lunar society can be found in Robert Heinlein's 1966 novel, The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress. The premise: In 2075, the moon, once a prison colony and depository for political dissidents, has become a thriving frontier society with roughly several million inhabitants living in "pressures" beneath the surface. According to the book, the moon's many attractive assets include:
1. Water and agriculture
In The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, the moon's primary commercial activity revolves around water harvested from ice buried deep beneath the surface. That same water is used in massive underground farms whose products is shipped back down to Earth (It's worth noting that shipping things back to Earth is far easier than shipping things from Earth, since escape velocity is only 2.38 km/s compared to Earth's 11.186 km/s). However, it's this very practice that leads to lunar revolt after the colonists decide they want a cut of the profits and an end to the draining of their natural resources. Best to draw up a contract first.
2. The fountain of youth
According to Heinlein, the moon's comparatively low gravity could help extend life indefinitely by alleviating stress on the heart, bones, and organs. Many of Luna City's residents are well over 100 = but are mistaken for 30-somethings by visiting tourists. The only downside is that once your heart gets used pumping blood at low gravity, returning to earth becomes a dangerous proposition.
3. Open marriage
Perhaps what really caught Newt's eye are lunar society's marriage practices (he did once speculate about what it would be like to have sex in space). Because of its origins as a prison colony, the male/female ratio is generously skewed towards men roughly 2:1. As a result, lunar women are given the reigns to take multiple husbands and form complex group marriages, though Newt may not be comfortable being just one in a stable of husbands.
At the very least it's a more worthwhile enterprise than building an electrified fence across the border with Mexico.