Date: December 11, 2009
Title: Returning to the Moon? Too Soon?
Podcaster: Larry Sessions
Description: Thirty-seven years ago today (on Dec. 11, 1972), the last two astronauts set foot on the Moon. And now, as it is about to abandon the Space Shuttle fleet, NASA plans to return to the Moon and establish a permanent lunar base. But is this science or politics? Some say a direct Mars mission is a better goal, or that robotic probes can do all we need with the Moon.
Bio: Larry Sessions is a former director and staff astronomer at Denver’s Gates and Fort Worth’s Noble planetariums, and now is an instructor for Metropolitan State College and the Community College of Aurora, Colorado. He also is the webmaster and editor for the Southwestern Association of Planetariums (http://www.swapsky.org/), as well as his own website, North American Skies (http://home.comcast.net/%7Esternmann/index.htm), his Twitter page (http://twitter.com/NASkies) and a contributor to EarthSky.org (http://www.earthsky.org/). A NASA/JPL “Solar System Amabassador” (http://www2.jpl.nasa.gov/ambassador/) for about 10 years, he has every copy of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada’s annual handbook since 1971.
Today’s sponsor: This episode of “365 Days of Astronomy” is sponsored by the American Astronomical Society, the major organization for professional astronomers in North America, whose members remind everyone that One Sky Connects Us All. Find out more or join the AAS at aas.org.
Returning to the Moon? Too Soon!
Hi and welcome to this edition of 365 Days of Astronomy. I am Larry Sessions, a former planetarium director, and currently an astronomy instructor in Denver, Colorado. I also occasionally lecture at Gates Planetarium and contribute to websites such as EarthSky.org. For about 10 years I have been a member of the NASA/Jet Propulsion Laboratory Solar System Ambassador’s program. That’s a fancy way of saying that I sometimes give talks or write pieces about the JPL robotic missions to the planets, on a purely volunteer, non-paid basis, simply because I believe that robotic space exploration gives the best return in scientific value for the money invested.
Just the other night, as I write this, I re-confirmed for myself the famous Full Moon effect, in which the rising Moon appears so much larger and distinct than when it is higher overhead. Without question, this is an illusion, but oh, so convincing. It isn’t difficult to understand why people feel a connection to the Moon, a kind of psychological bond.
My mother many years ago told me that back in the early 50s, when I was just a baby, we traveled across country on a train. At one point I looked out the train window at the Moon hanging in the sky and said, “Moon,” which apparently was my first word. Apollo 11 landed on the Moon in the summer after I graduated from high school. And by the time I graduated from college, I already was running a small planetarium and I fielded Moon-related questions and requests nearly every day. In the mid-70s the director of the small museum I worked for desperately wanted a moonrock to display. Strictly speaking, we did not have the required facilities, which included a high security safe in which to store the moonrock when not on display. But in a move that served more to better public education than strictly follow NASA requirements, the museum director convinced NASA that we had everything required.
Before I knew it, we had a small moonrock, sealed in pure nitrogen and encased in a small glass sided box. Now, not only did our museum not have the required high security safe, we had no safe at all. And as a little bit to my surprise, at the end of the first day, the Museum director packed the moonrock back into its blue wooden official NASA carrying case and handed it to me. Take it home, I was told, and keep it safe. So for the next month, or however long we had it, I carried the moonrock home every night and put it on the floor next to my bed. I must belong to a very small number of people who can say that they slept with a moonrock.
Over the next few years I met several moonwalking astronauts, and information about the moon missions and moonrocks was all the rage. There was talk of an outpost on the Moon, possible colonization, and a scientific station on the Farside including a large radio telescope shielded from the noisy Earth. But somehow, political interest in the Moon died, and along with it the funding for future missions. Money went to America’s tiny space station, Skylab, and later all the emphasis went to the space truck – the Space Shuttle – and then ultimately the International Space station.
Now, 40 years later, interest is on the rise in some places. There is much science to be done on the Moon, and good reasons for going back, but I have to question some of the motivations. A science station is a good idea, but colonization — at least in any attempt to relieve population pressure from Earth — is an absurd idea. And an astronomical observatory and/or a radio observatory on the Moon’s Farside just doesn’t make the sense it used to. We can make the observations as well, and much less expensively, from Earth-orbit.
One idea frequently bantered about is that of mining the Moon for resources. Frankly, commercial exploitation of lunar resources is, to me, a frightening prospect. Considering the lousy record many mining operations have here on Earth, I think it would be a disaster to turn them loose on the Moon or anywhere else in space.
Much of the solar system, including the Moon, can be explored robotically, as the NASA/JPL missions to Mars and the Outer planets have made abundantly clear. Robotic spacecraft are highly capable, more rugged and certainly less expensive than astronauts. I say we leave lunar exploration to JPL and/or other agencies to do with unmanned rovers, surface stations and orbiters – for now.
Furthermore, a renewed push to return astronauts to the Moon would not, in my opinion, inspire the same national and international commitment and wonder that the Apollo program brought. But we need a common goal, a great dream or vision of the future to invigorate not just the United States, but to engender worldwide cooperation. Proverbs 29:18 says, “Without a vision the people perish.” I think that is true.
But if a return to the Moon isn’t it, what great dream can or should we make real? There are many worthwhile projects, some of which could easily be argued as being more important than any mission to space. I may sound like a Miss America pageant contestant, but world peace and ending hunger are two goals that I would gladly embrace even if it meant forbidding space flight. But truth is, we have had these problems for millennia and apparently there just isn’t the political will to solve them. Sadly, I don’t think any program for world peace and the end to hunger would inspire the kind of international commitment and cooperation that a major goal in space would, And what could be better for peace than many countries working side-by-side, developing technologies that just may have spin-offs that ultimately ease hunger and help provide stability and cooperation across the planet?
But what goal can we have? Where should we set our sights next?
For me the answer is simple. It is not going back to the Moon, or landing on an asteroid or comet — although these things will certainly be important. Instead, we should go to Mars. To borrow and modify a phrase from John Kennedy, We choose to go to Mars… and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.
We have to be careful that we go to Mars with the right goals in mind. We should go as explorers, as scientists, as dreamers, but not as exploiters. Mars, as a pristine world, whose attainment is far more difficult and expensive than any location on Earth, should be treated with great respect for the scientific treasure trove it is. In fact I don’t think we should rush in going there, but should continue and even expand JPL’s robotic exploration, which already has a number of new programs on the way, including the Mars Science Laboratory, scheduled for launch in the fall of 2011. Only after a thorough examination by the next generations of rovers, landers and orbiters should we attempt a human mission, but we should start now.
We will go back to the Moon, but I say not now. Let’s set our sights farther and higher. Let’s go to Marsâ€¦. Thanks for listening.
End of podcast:
365 Days of Astronomy
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