So NASA has plans to send humans back to the Moon in the next 15 years or so (pending funding, of course). Why do this? Isn't the Moon so 1960s?
Lunar scientist Paul Spudis comes to the rescue and tries to answer these questions in the Washington Post yesterday. How convincing is he?
The essence of his argument:
The moon is important for three reasons: science, inspiration and resources.
The scientific extravaganza of sending humans to the Moon, according to Spudis, consists of learning the history of our corner of the Solar System and using the Moon as a platform for radio astronomy.
Spudis has been studying the Moon for decades, so it would be understandable for him to play up the importance of the Moon to learning about the early history of our planetary neighborhood. The broader community of planetary scientists does not appear to agree, however, as there have been virtually no scientific missions sent to the Moon in the last three decades, while numerous ones have been sent to every other corner of the Solar System. If science at the Moon has not been worth sending unmanned robots, why is it worth sending humans on missions that have a significant risk to life and limb?
Is it for the inspirational value?
In 21st-century America, our existence depends on an educated, technically literate workforce, motivated and schooled in complex scientific disciplines. Tackling the challenges of creating a functioning society off-planet will require not only the best technical knowledge we can muster but also the best imaginations. One cannot develop a creative imagination, the renewable resource of a vibrant society, without confronting and surmounting unknowns and challenges on new frontiers.Yet we have plenty of unknowns and "new frontier" challenges here on Earth, which is a far more fascinating, complicated, and lively place than the Moon. The idea that our society would be relegated to a creative desert without the challenge of doing something our grandfathers did is nonsensicaland insulting.
So perhaps it's all those great, valuable resources the Moon holds, just waiting to be tapped?
Water is an extremely valuable commodity in space -- in its liquid form, it supports human life, and it can be broken down into its two components, hydrogen and oxygen.Indeed, if there's one thing where the Moon beats Earth, it's with water. The Moon, aka "Water World". Wait! The Earth already has water. In place, it's miles deep! Why in the world would we go to the Moon, where the "Sea of Tranquility" refers to a bone-dry lava bed, for water that may not even be there? Because, according to Spudis, we can use it to make fuel. Fuel for what?
The ability to make fuel on the moon will allow routine access to Earth-moon space, the zone in which all of our space assets reside.Ah, so we would go to the Moon to make fuel for going to the Moon! Or to get back to Earth after going to the Moon. Or something like that.
But are there are other resources that may be useful?
Solar power, collected on the moon and beamed to Earth and throughout the space between the two, can provide a clean and reliable energy source not only for space-based applications but ultimately for users on Earth as well.Clean and reliable energy for us stuck here on Earth. Sounds great! But is that realistic, or just a pipe dream?
Lunar solar power solves the apparent "showstopper" of other space-based solar power systems -- the high cost of getting the solar arrays into space. Instead of launching arrays from the deep gravity well of Earth, we would use the local soil and make hundreds of tons of solar panels on the moon.This would be great if the infrastructure to make hundreds of tons of solar panels on the moon just magically appeared and didn't have to be launched from the deep gravity well of Earth itself.
To become a multiplanet species, we must master the skills of extracting local resources, build our capability to journey and explore in hostile regions, and create new reservoirs of human culture and experience. That long journey begins on the moon -- the staging ground, supply station and classroom for our voyage into the universe.Yet the justification for why becoming a "mutiplanet species" is necessary, feasable, or even desirable is, as we have seen, feeble.
Maybe there is indeed a reason to send humans back to the Moonto avoid the national embarrassment of ending this country's experiment with manned space travel with the fizzing out of the troubled Space Shuttle program over the next few years. (In fact, Spudis himself was quoted to this effect in a September article: "[I]t’s better than the alternative, which is extinction of human exploration.")
Perhaps that reason fits in Spudis' "inspirational" category. But I disagree. Whatever its other shortcomings, a goal of sending humans to a far more fascinating and challenging destinationthe planet Marswould be inspirational. Returning to an airless, waterless, lifeless world first visited nearly two generations ago is not.