The Last Moon Shot
It was 40 years ago yesterday, on the 7th of December, 1972, the mighty Saturn 5 rocket lifted off. It carried the Apollo 17 moon mission, astronauts who would be the last humans on the moon in what has now been four decades.
The Apollo effort came together as a competition between two scared super rivals, the United States and the Soviet Union. That was the cause of the public’s involvement, but behind the scenes were folks excited about space and the moon and rockets and all that. Human kind, as a matter of public policy, reached out and touched another planet…and then just stopped. Why?
Now NASA works to build a huge rocket to go…where? To Mars, to an Asteroid, to L2…maybe. What about the moon? On this the 40th year after the last manned moon launch (“last” as in the most recent one) let us ask ourselves, “Why go back?”
1> Because it is an easier target for testing the equipment for a flight to Mars.
Yes, we went to the Moon already, but the equipment that we built to do that is long since dust. We’ve learned some things since then and need new equipment based on that knowledge. That new equipment needs a shake-down cruise to an easy target. The Moon is, from the perspective of Earth orbit, pretty much a fixed target in space. It is always in the same place and we can come and go on our own schedule. Mars and other “deep space” destination are orbiting the Sun just like we are, and at different rates of speed than the Earth. This makes launching to any of them a one-shot deal. If you have a launch failure, you might have to wait another year or more until the Earth and that object swing near to each other again.
If going to Low Earth Orbit is like stepping out onto your back porch, and going to the Moon is like driving down the street to the local supermarket, then going to Mars is like catching a train without it stopping…like an old West train robbery, riding up to the moving train on fast horses and jumping on. So in the same sense that the ISS is a nice test bed for long-duration space survival, the Moon is a nice test bed for long-distance space travel.
2> Because we still have more to learn from the Moon.
Been there done that? Well ya, 40 years ago! One person might say that we’ve learned all there is to learn from the Moon, but someone ELSE might say instead that we’ve learned all there is to learn from the science that we brought back from the Moon…and so now we need more. They’ve taken new looks at old data, using computers that are only available now, and found new things there to look at that no one was looking for before. Armed with today’s data-gathering abilities, we have the ability to answer questions that we could not even ask back then. Plus, Apollo was a fast-moving effort, a hammer looking for a nail. We’ve had 40 years to think of new questions now.
3> Because it’s cool.
It is! So I had to list it here. I know that this reasoning doesn’t effect everyone, but oh well.
4> Because we never stayed the first time.
Forty years ago we only wanted to show the world that we could get there and back, and it was only barely possible. Some say that we should have set up a Moon base back then, but the ability to live for long periods of time in space did not exist. On Apollo 17 two men lived on the Moon for three days, the unchallenged record! We have now operated the ISS for more than 10 years so we know how to STAY on the Moon. Things that had to be fit into a schedule and then left behind can now be looked at from the perspective of routine, long-term effort. It is like the difference between science done on the Space Shuttle verses science done on the ISS. It is time for a Moon station at the very least, if not a colony. Ask yourself, what kinds of exploration and science could we do if we built an ISS on the Moon? Call it the International Moon Station.
4> One word…China.
Yep, we are back in competition, we just don’t know it yet. China has started working up to their own Apollo. All of the reasons for beating the Russians to the Moon are back in play. An International Moon base will be the property of the people of Earth, but a Chinese Moon Base would be the property of China.
By the way, it looks like North Korea is getting ready to try again at launching a satellite. Their attempt in April failed and blew up over the sea. Did you know that their launch path is on a polar orbit? There is a wake up call waiting in there for someone maybe.
It’s not the Moon destination but the road that you travel to get there that provides the real value. We learned much on the way to Apollo, during Apollo, and after. Since then we have stretched the envelope in other ways, but not distance. The journey of a hundred miles starts with a first step, but there are many other steps, and rest stops, food, shoes, terrain. We can do it better now, and faster, and there are new things waiting to be learned when we mix our new abilities with another long trek to our newest neighbor.
The first Moon program changed out world culture. There are more changes waiting to be made.
Now where do we go from here? Will Apollo 17 be the last Moon shot for fifty years before we (humanity) return to the Moon?
- Apollo 17, 40 Years Later: An Astronaut Reflects (space.com)
- Space Travel (canoecommunications.wordpress.com)
- Last Lunar Landing Launched 40 Years Ago (space.com)
- 40 years of waiting (eatlogicalsentences.com)
- Apollo Veteran: Skip Asteroid, Go to the Moon (news.discovery.com)
- Golden Spike promises manned commercial flights to the Moon by 2020 (theverge.com)
- Firms will inherit Apollo legacy (bbc.co.uk)
- NASA remembers its last moon launch 40 years ago today (al.com)
- Moon Created by Giant Collision, Studies Confirm (history.com)
- US Needs New Deep-Space Agency, Apollo Astronaut Says (livescience.com)