One Small Step for Man

Fifty years ago this week we paid it a visit.

Some scientists say that advanced life forms like ours, maybe even life itself, could not exist here without it. The tidal forces generated in our planet’s core by that planetoid, with that particular mass, in that particular orbit, maintains enough of a magnetic field around Earth to protect the creatures living on it from the dangerous cosmic radiation from far-off stars and supernovas that leaks in through our own Sun’s magnetic bubble. The Earth’s magnetic field for which our Moon is responsible also keeps the excessive radiation from our own Star’s hiccups from killing us or altering our DNA too radically. It even, allegedly, shunts away the intense stream of exhaust gas from the Sun that would otherwise blow our atmosphere into space.

For as long as us creatures on Earth have existed, the Moon has been our helper, serving as both protector and nightlight. Everything with eyes has used it to it forage for food and move about at night. Many creatures use it in their mating rituals, and its role in that regard has been romanticized in poem and song. Along with the Earth’s daily rotation and its annual journey around the Sun, the moon’s orbit provides a consistent cadence to which we have built our calendar, and the interwoven biology of life dances to its rhythm.

Photo by Alexandro David on Pexels.com

The Moon, our closest and second most important Celestial neighbor, has sat out there looking down at us with its faux face for far longer than we’ve been capable of looking back up at it. We speculate about rocks and trees, what they could tell us if they could talk, but the Moon has stood as over-watch, largely unchanged, witnessing the entire history of our ever-changing Earth.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

In spaceflight it stood as our first outward-looking destination. It has beckoned to us with tales of treasure to find. It carries the history of the solar system preserved in its crust. Plate tectonics have melted down most of the rare substances that have been brought to Earth through meteor strikes, and made them part of it’s core…inaccessible. On the Moon, most of that stuff sits on the surface, clearly marked on a map of impact craters. The Earth’s magnetic field pushes away the smoke from the Sun’s nuclear fires, but that smoke contains a nuclear-charged isotope of Helium that could be developed as a clean energy source. The Moon has no magnetic field and no meaningful atmosphere, so it’s surface has been bombarded by and absorbing that solar wind, accumulating it in its regolith sands throughout its life.

Most importantly, the Moon sits only a weeks drive from here, and launching back from it is comparatively easy. This gives us a safely close-by place to shake out the wrinkles of the technologies that can take humans to Mars and elsewhere. Indeed, once humans can confidently visit the Moon for more than several years, we will have but few technical challenges left before the capability of safely orbiting other planets.

Yes, we’ve had the ability to send robots to all of those places, and yes we have done so, for decades. However, there comes a point where you’re sending a robot to do a human’s job. On Mars earlier this week, they programmed a rover’s robotic arm to move a piece of equipment out of the way so that they could access the tiny drill that has gotten stuck while jackhammering its way into the Martian surface. Now they will program the rover to push a scoop in next to the drill to offer it counter resistance and help it continue digging. That’s an over simplification, but it highlights the limitations of robotic exploration. A human explorer could solve that same problem by just walking up, moving the equipment out of the way, and giving the dirt next to the drill a firm but gentle kick. We’ve had a rover die after getting stuck in the sand and others have struggled to get enough energy to survive the winter through dust-covered solar panels.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Humans long ago waited for the Moon to rise before venturing out of their shelters to hunt. Fifty years ago this week we didn’t wait for the Moon to come to us, we went out to it to hunt..and we will return again very soon.

Back in 1969 we didn’t have the technology to live in space for extended periods of time, today we’ve continually inhabited an orbiting space station for over 18 years and counting. Back in the 1960’s and 70’s Moon visits were part of an International “my rocket is bigger than yours” contest, today only the most vain and self-centered politicians show any interest at all in “Flags and Footprints” missions like Apollo 11. Up until 10 or so years ago we had to rely solely on the vast resources of Government to take or neglect the initiative for all lunar exploration, today private interests have the drive, the funding, and will soon have the technology, to reach out on their own and take all that the Moon has to offer…and what they want there will require much more than just robots, or a series half-week visits, to achieve.

SpaceX test-fired Starhopper this week. It is a hop-test vehicle that is part of the development of a huge and hugely inexpensive reusable rocket capable of sending humans to the Moon and Mars.

NASA just awarded contracts worth tens of millions of dollars to several former Google Lunar X-Prize contestants to fly inexpensive robotic NASA missions to the Lunar surface. They hope that some day some of these groups will support human habitation on the Moon.

China is building an infrastructure to communicate with landers and rovers on the unseen far side of the Moon.

Russia is getting into the Moon game and India as well.

We’re going back to stay.

Don’t ask if…ask how soon.

It all started with one footprint fifty years ago.

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~ by Bill Housley on July 18, 2019.

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