It seems to me….
“I think we’re going to the Moon because it’s in the nature of the human being to face challenges. It’s by the nature of his deep inner soul… we’re required to do these things just as salmon swim upstream.” ~ Neil Armstrong.
This week on 20 July 2019, a half-century will have passed since Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstrong and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin became the first humans to walk on the Moon. The landing on the Moon and successful return remains one of humanity’s most incredible achievements. But in many ways we are celebrating an accomplishment from fifty years ago only because we have failed to build upon and exploit what was done back then. While not disparaging the significance of that achievement, current attention being paid to it is in reality an acknowledgment of the failure to follow through with what had been accomplished by that program. The dreams of finally breaking free of the small insignificant rock which has been the home of the human species were cast aside and trampled by Congressional ineptitude apparently totally devoid of deep-space aspirations.
There are those who question the basic premise of returning to the Moon or even of space exploration. Many people, including some scientists, rightfully point out that robotic missions are less expensive than manned missions but that actuality fails to acknowledge that frequently it is the serendipitous possibilities that make manned missions of increased value. It is highly doubtful that any robotic lunar expedition would have recognized the potential value of the so-called Genesis Rock as David Scott and James Irwin did while exploring a section of the Mare Imbrium on Apollo 15.
The Moon provides an opportunity to test new tools, instruments, and equipment that could be used on Mars, including human habitats, life support systems, and technologies and practices that could help us build self-sustaining outposts away from Earth. Scientific research is critical but the primary goal should always be to further enable permanent human presence in space.
For those hoping to put more people on the Moon, many plans for future missions hinge on harvesting its available resources. The most resource-rich targets seem to be the Moon’s poles, where permanently shadowed craters act as “cold traps” building up deposits of water ice from billions of years of comet and asteroid impacts – and also a possible active “water cycle” on the Moon. Although its utility for human survival is clear, the ice may have immense scientific value as well, revealing hidden chapters of lunar history that could inform our knowledge of how life on Earth arose and evolved. Studies of the deposits in dark polar craters could conceivably provide new information about the long-term stability of the Moon’s orbit, the nature and timing of impacts by asteroids and comets, and even past episodes of lunar volcanism.
Every President since Kennedy has given their own version of his space speech, a rite of passage attempting to rally the country and recapture the national pride that came with the 1960s-era Apollo program. The newly announced Presidential Moon plans follow at least two other Republican administrations’ plans to go there: George H.W. Bush announced the Space Exploration Initiative in 1989 stating “And next, for the new century: back to the Moon; back to the future. And this time, back to stay”. His son, George W. Bush, envisioned the Constellation program in 2004 “Establishing an extended human presence on the Moon could vastly reduce the costs of further space exploration, making possible ever more ambitious missions…”. Both initiatives were eventually canceled.
Now it is Trump’s turn to announce plans for a return to the Moon by 2024. If anyone prefers to be skeptical rather than fully accepting that announcement, based on past history, they would be correct in doing so. Congress has yet to fund the program.
This time, however, there are some differences which might finally provide some motivation to actually make it happen. No longer is the U.S. government the only player in what is becoming an increasingly crowded number of contenders in a very real space race with possibly meaningful consequences. Half a dozen governments, as well as a handful of private companies, all have missions to the Moon planned for the near future which could lead to serious disagreements if not possible conflict. Paranoidally, it is feared that the Chinese, with whom Congress has barred U.S. space cooperation, will attempt to lay claim to a prime site preventing anyone else from landing in a preferred location.
The Outer Space Treaty, an international law approved on 10 October 1967, stipulates that space exploration must be conducted peacefully and for the benefit of all nations. While no one can actually own territory in space, the treaty contains two “noninterference clauses” providing that anywhere an entity has landed, others should avoid disturbing that site to avoid causing harm to another’s probes or outposts. Such loopholes create an opening for a nation or private entity to monopolize the Moon’s most valuable real estate simply by arriving there first and staking a claim.
A potential race could result to claim highly desirable areas of the Moon acquired on a first-come-first-served basis, rewarding the wealthy countries and companies that can actually (and successfully) get there. There is sufficient real estate on the Moon to go around – the total surface area is about the size of Africa – but the resources there are unevenly distributed. Iron and titanium, which could be useful for building Moon habitats and technologies, are abundant in different regions of the lunar surface. The helium 3 deposits common in areas of the top layer of lunar regolith could conceivably power possible fusion reactors. And “resources” are not limited to extractable materials. Some landforms, such as certain crater pits, could offer radiation protection to astronauts, and sites on the lunar far side that are shielded from Earth’s radio noise would be especially well suited to hosting telescopes. In the near term, the most desirable resource of all is water. Astronauts can drink water or they can break it into its constituent elements and transform them into rocket fuel. For the first off-planet explorers, water has been called the oil of space.
Some of the most promising sites for water extraction are the so-called “Peaks of Eternal Light” at the north and south lunar poles. These are crater peaks, geographical features that often form at or near the edges of impact craters when an asteroid strikes the surface and pushes material to the side, where it rises up to form a ridge at the rim. Because of the Moon’s orbital mechanics, the sun shines almost perpetually at these peaks, offering a nearly constant source of energy for solar panels. Astronauts could stage bases there to extract the water sitting conveniently nearby at the bottom of these craters where permanently shadowed regions have allowed ice to accumulate. Each pole contains roughly half a dozen of these Peaks of Eternal Light, which are only about a few hundred meters across apiece. Given this relative scarcity, it is easy to see why the principle of noninterference could be a useful way for nations to claim territory. They are so small no one else can land on one without risking damage to a spacecraft that’s already there. The first one to land in those locations could claim de facto ownership.
Several missions scheduled to take place in the next few years all target the same territory. India’s Chandrayaan-2 mission, due to launch in July 2019, will aim for the lunar poles. The China National Space Administration has said that at least its next three probes will head to the poles as well. The Russian space agency Roscosmos is developing its Luna-Glob program, which would touch down near the Boguslawsky crater near the south pole perhaps as early as 2021. That same year Japan intends to launch the Smart Lander for Investigating Moon, or SLIM, which could demonstrate extremely high landing accuracy on small lunar features. China has announced plans, probably near the end of 2019, to send a robotic lunar sample-return mission that would be a precursor of a manned research station near the lunar south pole.
In many ways, NASA is gambling that commercial partners will enable it to reach the Moon by taking over some crucial tasks. Over the next few years, NASA envisions that private companies will continue to fly lunar probes that grow progressively more complex. These might culminate in a robotic mission to collect Moon rocks and scout landing sites for a crewed mission.
NASA, the European Space Agency, and other private interests are looking Moonward as well. In May 2019, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, who founded the spaceflight company Blue Origin, unveiled plans for its Blue Moon lunar lander, which, he said, could be ready to carry crews within the next five years. Moon Express aims to land at the lunar south pole in 2021.
NASA announced on 3 June 2019 it had chosen the first commercial companies that will carry the agency’s equipment to the Moon during its lead-up to a tentative human landing in 2024: Astrobotic, Intuitive Machines, and Orbit Beyond. Each company will carry a selection of NASA payloads intended to either address scientific questions about the Moon or test new technology that engineers are developing to advance space exploration. Astrobotic has said its Peregrine lander will carry up to 14 payloads for NASA as well as 14 experiments for other customers, for a total of 28 payloads in all. Intuitive Machines will fly five payloads on its Nova-C lander, with Orbit Beyond carrying four payloads on its own Z-01 lander. NASA announced its selection of Maxar to build the power and propulsion element of the Gateway, a lunar-orbiting station meant to act as a platform for missions bound for the Moon’s surface.
It’s fairly unlikely that NASA will return to the Moon by 2024 as it is politically handicapped by carrying unnecessary, but Congressionally directed, weight in the use of a very large, very expensive, as yet unfinished NASA-developed booster, the Space Launch System (SLS). Additionally, Congress, which controls NASA’s budget, seems increasingly uninterested in either the SLS or alternatives such as SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy, the New Glenn rocket being developed by Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin, or even paying for any Moon-related mission.
But there are alternatives to a space race. In the past, space activities were realized by direct procurement of the agencies, as in the Apollo Moon missions. Rather than entering into such a space race and attempting to lay claim to any lunar area, the U.S. should actively promote a cooperative approach to lunar exploration similar to what has been done with the International Space Station (ISS). If we are to travel again to another planetary body, it should be together with all other nations. Congress should immediately remove any restrictions on working with the Chinese and join with the Europeans in the construction of a multinational Moon Village.
This idea has perhaps been vociferously expressed by Johann-Dietrich (“Jan”) Wörner, director general of the European Space Agency (ESA). In 2015 Wörner introduced his vision for the “Moon Village”, a sort of cooperative campsite on the lunar surface. Countries, private companies, universities, nonprofits, and individuals would be welcome to send people, robots, and any type of scientific, exploratory, or commercial ventures to take part. The Moon Village is a multi-partner open concept where cooperation would enable different participants to provide whatever they are capable of offering, whether transportation, mining, tourism, science, or technology development for in situ resource utilization; e.g., using water to produce fuel.
To establish Moon Village international and collaborative bona fides, the project is officially being organized not by the ESA but by a Vienna-based nongovernmental organization called the Moon Village Association which is open for groups and individuals to join. Rather than engaging in a race to claim limited resources, all nations should join and venture forth in peace and unity.
It is difficult for many of us to understand how anyone can walk out on a clear night and not hear the faint whispering siren call of the myriad distant stars letting us know that where we truly belong is out there among them. We must never forget our basic nature is that of an exploring species and if the day ever arrives when we cease to expand our knowledge of the cosmos, it marks the end of human enlightenment. The world would become bleak, pre-occupied with the immaterial relative importance of religion and nationalism, with the sophistic quests of resource-hungry people and nations, and with acceptance of a statistically inevitable extinction event.
We are motivated by the power of our dreams to undertake and accomplish tasks – truly big dreams similar to what resulted in successfully landing and returning from the Moon demonstrates a power capable of motivating our nation even in the midst of social and political strife. It is time, following a fifty-year hiatus, to once again recall that dream and take our next steps on an endless journey of exploration and discovery. Humans have always been motivated to see what is beyond the next hill or around the next bend in the road. Without going where we never have previously ventured, we will have lost much that makes our species unique.
Humans are not special in that rules applicable to other species do not also equally apply to us; intelligence has yet to be proven beneficial to long-term survival. Regardless, single-planet species do not survive; living off the planet is a necessary long-term survival strategy. Only by escaping the constraints binding us to a single infinitesimally small piece of rock can we fulfill our destiny.
Whenever I see a picture of Earth from space, I never am able to distinguish any political boundaries. Hunger will always be with us. Poverty will always be with us. Likewise, we always will know conflict. But our window of opportunity to the waiting universe will remain open only for a limited interval of time. No greater challenge awaits us.
That’s what I think, what about you?
 Neil Alden Armstrong was an American astronaut and aeronautical engineer who was the first person to walk on the Moon. He was also a naval aviator, test pilot, and university professor.
 Mann, Adam. Lunar Land Grab, Scientific American, https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/the-new-scramble-for-the-moon/?redirect=1, July 2019, pp60-65.