A Golden Frontier
Recent news stories have shown that we are in the midst of a national debate on space goals. Although many options can be envisioned, including terminating human space flight, our 45-year space history shows that America wants people in space. But to where and to what end?
The tragic loss of Columbia has refocused the nation's attention on the direction of our space program. Indisputable as technological wonders, continued flights of the shuttle and the building of the International Space Station are losing luster as "exploration." Begun as a bold answer to a technical challenge from an adversary, America's space program ignited our national spirit, drove innovative technology and sparked excellence in math and science in our schools. But decades later and in the absence of such competition, some think our space program has lost its edge.
We should return to the moon. With such a goal, we will inspire our youth with a challenging task, develop resources of enormous commercial value and be more secure with routine access to any location in Earth-moon space. A lunar return will teach us about our planetary origins and open up new and exciting scientific possibilities. A return to the moon is not a repeat of the Apollo experience. When we went to the moon 30 years ago, it was to demonstrate that we could do it. When we return there, it will be to use the valuable and unique resources of the moon to open the space frontier.
Although close, the moon is another world — an alien landscape that's familiar, yet a frontier where we already know there is "gold." This treasure, approximately 10 billion tons of water-ice found in the dark regions of the lunar poles, was discovered during the 1994 Defense Department Clementine mission and later verified by NASA's Lunar Prospector spacecraft. It resides in the shadows, beneath peaks bathed in permanent sunlight. This bonanza has the potential to change the calculus of space flight.
We now know that living (not merely journeying) and thriving (not merely surviving) off-planet is possible. How? With water from the moon, which can be broken down into hydrogen and oxygen. Oxygen can be breathed and together the two elements make the most powerful chemical rocket fuel known (the space shuttle main engines burn liquid hydrogen and oxygen).
The development and use of lunar resources have important national, economic and security implications. Space communications satellites (comsats) occupy high Earth orbit, circling the equator at 23,000 miles. Because the shuttle cannot reach this high altitude, the only recourse is to abandon broken satellites and launch new ones, taking several years and millions of dollars. The ability to routinely move machines and people throughout Earth-moon space to service and maintain these assets is increasingly necessary.
With the opportunity to use fuel mined from the moon, we can send people to high orbits to service satellites. Having the capacity to refuel rockets in orbit greatly extends our reach and operational limits, up to and including the moon.
Earth's natural satellite offers a tempting scientific target with a fascinating and important history to decipher. Asteroid and comet impacts have drastically effected life here, including the extinction of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. Because Earth is geologically active, most of this terrestrial impact record has been erased. But the moon orbits the sun along with the Earth, and this story lies preserved and recorded in the ancient lunar surface. What other cosmic catastrophes have affected and interrupted the history of life? Could we discover a pattern to these giant collisions? Those questions and others can be answered on the moon.
The moon has a quiet, stable surface with a 14-day "night time," making it a natural place for astronomical observation. We can build telescopes capable of seeing thousands of times more clearly than the Hubble Space Telescope. The far side of the moon, never seen from Earth, is the only known place in the universe permanently shielded from the constant stream of electromagnetic noise of our industrial society. There, with a radio telescope, we can look into the universe and see completely new regions of the spectrum. Based on past experience, such a development could revolutionize our current knowledge.
We should make the moon a way station on the road into space. We must look to and utilize the materials and energy available in space to make our activities there routine, safe and affordable. We can explore with people and robots, conduct experiments and learn to use the indigenous resources of an alien world to support human and plant life. The moon is not a detour away from our space destiny, but rather a destination from where we will learn how to become space-ready and thereby maximize the success and survival of mankind.
The moon is a natural laboratory, where we can prepare for space journeys farther afield. It is a goal reachable with modest resources, yet challenging enough for the next generation of planetary explorers. It is a goal worthy of the spirit embodied in Columbia's brave crew, who gave their lives in the relentless human desire to understand the unknown. It is the right goal in space and the right space goal for America.
Paul D. Spudis is a planetary scientist. He was a member of the Science Team of the 1994 Clementine mission to the moon. He also is the author of "The Once And Future Moon."