With the recent successful completion of the LCROSS mission, NASA took the first step in planning a manned mission to the Moon by 2020. It has already been over 37 years since man ventured to the Lunar surface. So, we ask ourselves, why have we not been back since? Is there even a reason to return?
37 Years and Counting
It was 1972 the last time man set foot on the Moon. What has prevented us from returning since then? There are at least three main reasons:
- Perhaps the most obvious reason is the sheer cost of such a project. NASA spent billions of dollars during the 60s and early 70s developing the Apollo missions. We must remember that this was during the Cold War, and such expenses were tolerated by the American people for the sake of patriotism and staying ahead of our rivals. In today’s economic times, the tax-paying public is less likely to accept the high costs when they don’t see the direct benefit.
- The second reason we have yet to return to the Moon is the sheer danger of such an enterprise. Faced with the immense challenges that plagued NASA during the 50s and 60s, it is no small wonder that we ever made it to the Moon. Several astronauts lost their lives during the Apollo program, and there were also many technological setbacks along the way.
- The third, and in some ways most important reason, is that we haven’t really had a need to return to the Moon. While there are always interesting and scientifically important experiments that can be done, there hasn’t been anything of such pressing importance to justify the expense and danger of making the trip. With the advances of unmanned space probes and landing craft, a great amount of data can be gathered at a much lower cost and without endangering human life. The “big picture” questions, like how did the solar system form, would require much longer and more extensive trips than just a couple days on the Moon.
So What Has Changed?
In January 2004, President Bush announced plans to return to the Moon by 2020. After decades of little interest in returning to the rocky sphere orbiting out planet, it suddenly became popular again. So, why do we think it is now a good time to return to the Moon?
- Traveling to the Moon will still be expensive. But NASA feels that the benefits outweigh the cost. And, even more important, the government believes we will see a return on our investment. Looking back at the Apollo missions, they required a significant initial investment. However, technology -- satellite weather systems, global positioning systems (GPS) and advanced communication devices among other advancements -- created to support the lunar missions has now trickled down to everyday use. The money that the government has received from these technologies significantly outweighs the costs of the program. NASA argues that they would expect the same sort of advancement this time around, so they should get the money back over the long run.
- The technology that we have available now, and that which would be developed during the program, would allow us to do much more detailed (and longer) studies than what were conducted in the past. This should allow scientists the opportunity to answer some of the big questions still plaguing science. While we have some good ideas, scientists still do not completely understand how our Solar System was formed, or how the Moon was created. Traveling to the Moon could help us to finally find the answers.
- President Bush also announced in 2004 his plan to have a manned mission to Mars by 2030. Returning to the Moon is an important step in the Mars project. Traveling to the red planet is far more complex than just traveling to the Moon, and presents problems that we have yet to overcome from an engineering standpoint. The hope is that manned missions to the Moon will help us overcome these issues.
- Also, there are valuable resources on the Moon that we can use for other space missions. Particularly, liquid oxygen is a major component of the propellant needed for current space travel. NASA believes that this resource can be easily extracted from the Moon and stored at deposit sites for use by other missions -- particularly by a manned mission to Mars.
NASA has shown that, although the initial cost of a manned space mission can be quite expensive, it can more than pay for itself over the long run. That, coupled with the expected advances in science and technology that can be expected, there is great overall benefit.
More importantly, however, is the fact that man has always made an effort to understand the Universe, and this is an important step in our understanding. And it is an important first step if man ever wants to set foot on Mars.