Are We Going Back to the Moon?

 Analysis by Robert Lamb

Mon Jun 28, 2010 12:05 PM ET

Leave a Comment PrintEmailFacebookTwitterDiggYahoo! Buzz..Poor moon. Humans see it in the sky all the time yet haven’t visited in decades. (MPI/Archive Photo/Getty Images)

Between 1969 and 1972, Black Sabbath released four albums and astronauts landed on the moon six times, making it a pretty awesome time to be either a space enthusiast or a metal head. Yet while the Sabbath releases continued on into the mid-90s, missions to the moon abruptly ended.

Nearly 40 years have passed since Apollo 17, our last journey to the moon. Sure, President George W. Bush talked up a return trip, but President Obama’s plans for NASA don’t seem to include jaunts to the Sea of Tranquility.

So are we going back to the moon? You bet we are.

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“I see humans absolutely returning to the moon eventually,” says William Pomerantz, senior director of the Google X Prize foundation. “I don’t foresee it happening in the 2010s, but it’s moderately likely in the 2020s.”

Why do we stand to place a good half-century gap between our manned lunar programs? The main reason, according to Moon Society President Peter Kokh, comes down to the technology we have to get there.

“When NASA was given the mandate by Kennedy to win the space race, it was necessary to design a space transportation architecture, which makes no sense at all if you’re going to be going back repeatedly and building up a large space outpost,” Kokh says.

Such a delivery system, according to Kokh, results only in “flags and footprints.” Plus, as Pomerantz adds, they’re a long time coming.

“Governments have shown the capacity to do lunar missions and to do them very well,” says Pomerantz. “But generally speaking, they can do them only once every decade or so. As a consequence, they do these very big, very expensive and extraordinarily capable missions. They’ll take landers or orbiters or rovers that have 20 different sensors on them.”

Although such large-scale efforts will continue to play a role in humanity’s exploration of the moon, smaller missions will play an essential role as well. These missions will entail both smaller payloads and more streamlined parameters, such as carrying out specific experiments or scouting a landing area.

“Sometimes you need a Mack truck, and sometimes you need a bicycle,” Pomerantz says, “and right now the government only has the Mack.”

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So if the classic Apollo missions or the canceled Constellation program constituted a Mack truck to the moon, then where do we turn for the bicycle? This, Pomerantz says, is where Google’s Lunar X prize comes into play.

The competition dangles $30 million in prize money in an attempt to stir privately funded teams to develop the kind of small-scale, economically feasible delivery systems that the space industry needs.

“This technology will come at such a radically different price point that it’s going to open up exploration to an entirely new set of customers,” Pomerantz says. “So it won’t just be the big space agencies anymore. We’ll see the capacity for smaller space agencies and nations-states that don’t have a space agency to get involved.”

This situation also would enable universities and corporations to get in on the lunar action. The Lunar X participants haven’t left the Earth yet, however, and probably won’t for at least a couple of years.

“We announced the prize in September of 2007, and we knew going in, before the economic crisis, that we were beginning a seven-year journey,” Pomerantz says. “It’s likely we’re still looking at that. We’re not going to see an attempt this calendar year, and in all likelihood, we will not see an attempt next calendar year, but 2012 starts to be a possibility, and beyond that the likelihood increases with every passing year.”

Why the Moon?

It’s important to realize that while we haven’t been to the moon in nearly 40 years, it’s still an exceedingly promising target for human exploration.

“There’s not one be-all, end-all, reason to go back,” says Pomerantz. “I think there are five or six of them, and probably the most exciting ones are yet to be discovered.”

The three most prominent reasons for a lunar return, however, boil down to scientific research, energy and continued exploration of the solar system.

“Scientifically, the moon is an enormously interesting place to learn about the early history of our planet and the formation of our solar system,” Pomerantz says. “It is a platform from which we can do absolutely unparalleled astronomy and observation. You’re outside of the Earth’s atmosphere. If you go to the far side of the moon, you’re basically at the only place in the readily accessible universe that’s totally shielded from all the television and other interference that broadcasts out from Earth.”

On the energy front, vast quantities of helium-3 could provide an excellent source of raw materials for humanity’s nuclear fusion future. Solar cells could also harvest solar energy and beam it back down to Earth.

“The main problem is that people are divided between those who just want to do research on the moon and those who really want to see it as the eighth continent,” says Kokh, whose nonprofit is certainly behind the idea of an industrialized moon.

And if humans managed to not only establish permanent bases on the moon, but also harness its energy resources, then the moon becomes a handy stepping-stone to further missions into the outer solar system.

“I know there are many people in the space industry who have their pet destinations and think that we should be going there at the exclusion of all other places,” Pomerantz says, “and the fact is that going to the moon makes going to all those other destinations easier. It’s a place where we can practice and prove out some key elements of any of those other missions.”

Plus, with less gravity, the moon would serve as a far easier launch point for missions, provided we could manufacture the ships on the lunar surface from local iron, aluminum, titanium and magnesium. The presence of lunar water only sweetens the prospect as hydrogen and oxygen are two key components in rocket fuel.

As for those unknowns Pomerantz spoke of, Kokh believes they stand as yet another reason that permanent, manned lunar bases are essential to uncovering the moon’s secrets.

“We’ll learn far more about the moon if we have people working and living there than if we just send exploration parties,” Kokh says. “We haven’t really scratched the surface. We know there are underground voids and lava tubes of enormous size, and these places are pre-shielded and ideal for settlements, industrial parks and warehouses. It would be the safest place in the solar system to archive everything humanity has.”

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