NASA Seeks Quick Return to the Moon
One space mission advocated by the Trump Administration is a relatively quick return to the Moon. According to the Wall Street Journal the Trump White House will seek to expand public-private partnerships for NASA, including, according to White House documents, “a rapid and affordable” return to the lunar surface.
A 2008 NASA report, developed before President Obama entered the White House and changed the agency’s focus to climate change, explained the importance of a return to the moon:
President Bush’s 2004 proposal to return to the Moon, this time ‘to stay’ with a lunar outpost, has stimulated vigorous debate… Neil Armstrong and his colleagues demonstrated that humans on the spot provide instant interpretation of their environment, guided by color, 3D, high resolution human vision that is only now being approached by robotic systems. Even encumbered by space suits, they could instantly recognize and collect invaluable samples such as the ‘Genesis Rock’ of Apollo 15, an anorthosite that has proven essential to understanding the geologic history of the Moon. When the Apollo 17 rover lost a fender – which might have terminated a robotic rover’s mission – astronauts Cernan and Schmitt managed a field repair and kept driving. All the Apollo astronauts emplaced complex geophysical instrument stations, most operating for years until budget cuts forced them to be turned off…what could such an outpost accomplish? First, it could continue the exploration of the Moon, whose surface area is roughly that of North and South America combined. Six ‘landings’ in North America would have given us only a superficial knowledge of this continent, and essentially none about its natural resources such as minerals, oil, water power, and soil. The Moon is a whole planet, so to speak, whose value is only beginning to be appreciated.
The Moon is not only an interesting object of study, but a valuable base for study of the entire Universe, by providing a site for astronomy at all wavelengths from gamma rays to extremely long radio waves. This statement would have been unquestioned 30 years ago. But the succeeding decades of spectacular discoveries by space-based instruments, such as the Hubble Space Telescope, have led many astronomers such as Nobel Laureate John Mather to argue that the Moon can be by-passed, and that instruments in deep space at relatively stable places called Lagrangian points are more effective…
The Moon may offer mineral resources… of great value on Earth. Apollo 17 astronaut Harrison Schmitt, working with the Fusion Technology Institute of the University of Wisconsin, has shown that helium 3, an isotope extremely rare on Earth, exists in quantity in the lunar soil, implanted by the solar wind. If – a very big if – thermonuclear fusion for energy is produced on Earth, helium 3 would be extremely valuable for fusion reactors because it does not make the reactor radioactive. A more practicable use of helium 3, being tested at the University of Wisconsin, is the production of short-lived medical isotopes. Such isotopes must now be manufactured in cyclotrons and quickly delivered before they decay. But Dr. Schmitt suggests that small helium 3 reactors could produce such isotopes at the hospital. In any event, research on the use of helium 3 would clearly benefit if large quantities could be exported to the Earth.
Returning to the most important reason for a new lunar program, dispersal of the human species, the most promising site for such dispersal is obviously Mars, now known to have an atmosphere and water. Mars itself is obviously a fascinating object for exploration. But it may even now be marginally habitable for astronaut visits, and in the very long view, might be “terraformed,” or engineered to have a more Earth-like atmosphere and climate. This was described in Kim Stanley Robinson’s trilogy, Red Mars and its successors Green and Blue Mars. A second Earth, so to speak, would greatly improve our chances of surviving cosmic catastrophes.
“Where does the Moon fit into this possibility? First, it would continue to give us experience with short interplanetary trips, which is what the Apollo missions were. These would demonstrably be relatively short and safe compared to Mars voyages, but would provide invaluable test flights, so to speak. More important, shelters, vehicles, and other equipment built for the Moon could be over-designed, and with modification could be used on Mars after being demonstrated at a lunar outpost…
… put the arguments for a return to the Moon, and a lunar outpost, in the most general terms: the Moon is essentially a whole planet, one that has so far been barely touched. But this new planet is only a few days travel away and we have already camped on it. To turn our backs on the Moon would be equivalent to European exploration stopping after Columbus’s few landings, or China’s destruction of its giant ships to concentrate on domestic problems in the 15th century.
Originally published on New York Analysis of Policy and Government.