Why we should go back there
So far, George Bush's plan to establish a permanent base on the Moon by 2020, and send astronauts to Mars by 2030, has drawn a less than enthusiastic reaction from the American public. With some justification, people have focused on the yet untallied cost of Bush's plan. But I hope that the bean-counting mentality will not blind us to this extraordinary opportunity to revive our late, lamented Space Age and get it moving in a sensible direction. We should try to make this happen in spite of the costs, instead of letting the cost dissuade us. Unlike the space shuttle and space station, the Moon base will never have to struggle for a sense of purpose, because it comes with a whole world attached. The Moon is not just an opening act for Mars. Geologists want to explore the far side of the Moon because it may be significantly different in composition from the near side. Its more ancient crust will give us a better idea of lunar history, and a better handle on the threat of meteorite impacts to our own planet. Solar system explorers want a Moon base at the South Pole because that is where the ice might be, which could be mined and converted into rocket fuel for missions to Mars and beyond. (It is sixty times easier to refuel an interplanetary spacecraft from the Moon than to do it from Earth.) Astronomers would love to put an enormous telescope in a permanently shadowed crater near the South Pole, where they could enjoy perpetually dark skies. Nearby, Malapert Mountain is in nearly perpetual sunlight, and could serve as a solar power station.
Now is exactly the right time to start laying the plans for human exploration of the Moon. Already we are in the midst of a significant, though somewhat hodgepodge ramp-up of lunar exploration. Europe launched its SMART-1 satellite toward the Moon in October 2003. Japan, India, and China are also working on Moon missions. Meanwhile, NASA is studying a robotic mission to the far side of the moon proposed by Michael Duke of the Colorado School of Mines. This mission, which still has to compete for funding with a Jupiter orbiter, would send a lander to the South Pole-Aitken Basin and bring back the first moon rocks since Russia's Luna 24 in 1976. NASA could make the South Pole-Aitken visit into the first of a series of unmanned precursor missions, like the Ranger and Surveyor missions in the 1960s.
When we return people to the Moon, I believe we can do it in a way that even technophobes can appreciate. The astronauts were profoundly moved by their journey, but they struggled to communicate their experience. Next time, we should bring poets, filmmakers, and artists to the Moon, along with the scientists. We certainly must return with women - the greatest missing ingredient in Apollo. Thanks to the Internet, lunar exploration will be much more participatory and audience-friendly than it was in the 1970s. But eventually, whatever the risks, we should open the Moon to ordinary citizens for real visits, not just virtual ones.
Perhaps the most important reason for our return to the Moon is the life that it gives to the human spirit. For a generation, we have given our astronauts nothing better to do than whiz around in low Earth orbit, the cosmic equivalent of running around chained to a stake. In a world where heroes are always in short supply, the astronaut corps are our heroes in waiting. It is time for us to charge them with a truly heroic mission, an adventure worthy of their dreams and their sacrifice.
The dream of the new NASA should not be to go "back" to the Moon. Instead, we should think of going forward - to a world of opportunities that we have just begun to explore.