Wednesday, 23 July 2014 | MYT 10:20 PM

The moon: Been there, done that, still clueless what to do about it

Forty-five years after the first landing, humans still don’t know what to do with the moon.

Back in 1969, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin’s July 20 landmark touchdown on the moon was meant to be the beginning of something big. But in 1972, after 10 more astronauts followed in their footsteps, the Apollo programme was decommissioned, and no one has been back since.

But it’s not as if no one had thought of it. The most recent effort to return astronauts to the moon ended in 2010 when the Obama White House axed an underfunded programme called Constellation initiated by the previous administration. 

Charles "Pete" Conrad Jr. stands with the US flag on the lunar surface during the Apollo 12 mission, in 1969. – Reuters

Instead, NASA was directed to begin planning for a human expedition to an asteroid. That initiative, slated for 2025, includes a robotic precursor mission to redirect a small asteroid or piece of a larger asteroid into a high lunar orbit. Astronauts would then rendezvous with the relocated asteroid and pick up samples to be returned to Earth. 

These missions are intended as a preparations of sorts for eventual human expeditions to Mars. This path, however, is fraught with technological cul-de-sacs that do not directly contribute to radiation protection, landing systems, habitats and other projects needed to build the road to Mars, a National Research Council panel concluded in June.

After a three-year study of different options for human space exploration, the panel says a more viable and sustainable path would be to return to the moon. “The moon, and in particular its surface, (has) significant advantages over other targets as an intermediate step on the road to the horizon goal of Mars,” the council’s Committee On Human Spaceflight writes in a report.

“Although some have dismissed the moon as no longer interesting because humans have visited it before, this is similar to considering the New World to have been adequately explored after the first four voyages of Columbus,” states the report, adding that NASA considers the moon “the purview of other nations’ space programmes”, and “not of interest to the US human space exploration programme”.

The report argues that NASA’s current attitude is an oversight. “This argument is made despite the barely touched scientific record of the earliest solar system that lies hidden in the lunar crust, despite its importance as a place to develop the capabilities required to go to Mars, and despite the fact that the technical capabilities and operational expertise of Apollo belong to our grandparent’s generation.”

Under current plans, it will be another 11 years before US astronauts travel beyond the International Space Station, a permanently staffed research laboratory that flies about 420km above Earth. A mission to Mars is at least a decade or more beyond that – if it happens at all.

“It is clear to me that we will not be able to build a long-term research base on Mars if we don’t first do it on the moon,” planetary scientist Chris McKay writes in a paper entitled The Case For A NASA Research Base On The Moon published last year in the journal New Space. “New technologies and approaches and increased international interest in the moon should make us consider pushing for a base that is 10 times less expensive than previous base designs,” McKay adds in an email.

Development of the Orion space capsule, Space Launch System heavy-lift rocket and launch pad renovations at the Kennedy Space Centre in Florida currently cost NASA more than US$3bil a year.

Ultimately, the hurdles on the path to Mars are political, not technical, in nature, the National Research Council report concludes. “Probably the most significant single factor in allowing progress beyond low Earth orbit is the development of a strong national (and international) consensus about the pathway to be undertaken and sustained discipline in not tampering with that plan over many administrations and Congresses.”

Meanwhile, Frank Sinatra summed it up for the rest of us. – Reuters

Tags / Keywords: Lifestyle , Features , Space Travel , Astronomy , NASA , Apollo 11 , 45th anniversary , moon , lunar , landing , Neil Armstrong , Edwin Aldrin , Michael Collins , astronauts , return


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