TCS Daily

One of These Days... Bang! Zoom! -- To the Moon!

By Charles Matthew Rousseaux - July 20, 2004 12:00 AM

In the thirty-five years since mankind took the giant leap -- and the small step -- onto the surface of the moon, NASA's manned program seemed lost in space, if that were possible even though the agency was barely going there. That loss of direction -- seemingly embodied by the International Space Station's endless, expensive orbits -- led many space enthusiasts and conservatives to advocate Mars as NASA's best next destination. The point being that it would actually point the agency in a specific direction. While a direct Mars mission still has many merits, there's much to be said for a return to the moon, too, particularly given the president's new space vision.

Mars remains an attractive target. As Robert Zubrin, the president of the Mars Society, argued in his book, "Entering Space," "Mars [is] the decisive step in humanity's outward migration into space." Mr. Zubrin pointed out that Mars has all the resources needed for not simply sustaining life but also for building a civilization. It also has the promise of life in the form of little red bacteria. Mars' robotic wanderers Sprit and Opportunity have confirmed that at some point in the past, parts of the planet were a salty sea.

Yet direct mission to Mars of the sort advocated by Dr. Zubrin would be expensive (billions of dollars -- real money even in Washington D.C.) and require many election cycles to carry out, assuming that the political will could be found to literally launch the project in the first place. While the red orb ought to be aimed at, the people from out of the blue might wish to shoot for something more chiaroscuro first.

At first glance, the idea of returning to the moon appears to be well, lunacy. After all, astronauts have already been there and scientists have divined much of its history. It formed billions and billions of years ago (Carl Sagan moment), during the early days of the solar system when a Mars-sized chunk of material did a face-plant into our planet. The resulting explosion was so powerful that it turned earth inside out, exterminated any nascent life and may have even (although scientists are still skeptical on this point) messed up John Edwards' hair.

In subsequent millennia, the moon has been sun-burned and impact-scarred, but little else. Like Monty Python's Norwegian Blue parrot, the moon is dead -- geologically, biologically, other-ogicallys. It's also far more desiccated than any earth desert. But it likely contains an essential element for life -- water. In 1996, the lunar probe Clementine found strongly suggestive signs of significant quantities of water near the lunar South Pole. In 1998, the Lunar Prospector found more evidence of water in the same region. Some scientists still dispute its existence though. "Lunar water remains an open question," wrote Charles Seife in the March 12 2004 issue of Science.

Planetary scientist Dr. Paul Spudis, deputy director of Clementine's science team and subsequent member of the president's commission on implementing the space vision, believes that water is the critical element in opening the moon to humans. He said in an interview, "The discovery of water on the moon changes everything." Humans need water for survival; spacecraft need it for fuel, and so water would make the moon base easier and cheaper to operate. (It's worth noting that since nitrogen, phosphorous and other elements critical to the growth of living things are non-existent on the moon, even the greatest wastrel on a prospective moon base would still making a priceless contribution each time he or she excretes.)

There are additional reasons to return to the moon. As Dr. Spudis noted, the moon is relatively easy to reach and offers a platform for travel in the areas in between -- the near-Earth space (known as cis-lunar space) where satellites silently traverse. The moon could be used for satellite maintenance, metal mining, major scientific research and even military purposes. Technologies developed on the moon could be used for the next step out -- Mars.

Admittedly, the resources needed for a moon mission would make a Mars Direct impossible. But a moon mission does not mean abandoning Mars -- it just means postponing the trip. As Dr. Spudis said, "In my mind, Mars is a destination, not the destination," adding, "You really have to step back and ask, 'What do you want to do -- what is your objective?' "

The president's objective is a stepwise, sustained voyage away from the earth, with no returning. NASA has already begun preparing for the first step -- the return to the moon. Engineers are developing the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LEO), which, after an anticipated 2008 launch, will spend at least a year making a detailed survey of the moon, including a close look at the polar caps. Several other nations are shooting for the moon as well. The European Space Agency has a probe en-route to the moon to look for water, Japan is planning to launch two lunar probes, India is preparing one and China has an ambitious, multi-step effort planned.

All of that makes the return to the moon look far more like a small step of sense than a giant leap of lunacy. The potential is profound. For the first time in decades, the manned space program is on the edge of something extraordinary. The next steps lead upwards and outwards -- first to the moon and then beyond.

Charles Rousseaux is an editorial writer for The Washington Times and a frequent TCS contributor. E-mail


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