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To the Moon

This summer will be the 40th anniversary of Apollo 11 – the mission that brought Armstrong and Aldrin to the surface of the moon. Forty years! As a child watching the Apollo missions with rapt attention, I never would have guessed that it would be another half a century before we would return. I rather assumed that the 2001 movie depiction was closer to the truth.

Where’s our moon base and orbiting hotel?

Now, best case scenario, NASA plans to return to the moon by 2020 – 51 years after Apollo 11.

Moon-hoax nutjobs claim that this is because we never really went in the first place. The real answer, I think, is fairly simple. It took a Herculean effort of political will to get to the moon “before this decade is out,” as JFK commanded – political will fueled by the cold war.

Since then, the political will has simply not existed. NASA has limped along, with a more modest budget, and has focused on doing science (probes and landers) and the Shuttle program. (Don’t get me wrong, I am a strong supporter of NASA science.)

Now, finally, NASA seems to be setting its sites on getting back to the more, perhaps with a more permanent presence. Last week they launched two probes that will scout out future landing sites on the moon.

NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter and Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Spacecraft are on their way to the moon atop the same Atlas V rocket, although they will use vastly different methods to study the lunar environment. LRO will go into orbit around the moon, turning its suite of instruments towards the moon for thorough studies. The spacecraft also will be looking for potential landing sites for astronauts.

LCROSS, on the other hand, will guide an empty upper stage on a collision course with a permanently shaded crater in an effort to kick up evidence of water at the moon’s poles. LCROSS itself will also impact the lunar surface during its course of study.

Pretty cool. NASA has been saying for a while that permanently shadowed craters on the Moon’s south pole are good candidates for future lunar bases. They may contain water, permanently frozen in the shadowed depths of the crater. That would be a huge resource for any long stay on the moon.

Further, the crater will shield astronauts from the heat of the sun, but at the same time all they have to do is raise solar panels out of the shadow of the crater to get some electricity from the sun.

While there are many great missions that NASA may undertake, I think we are overdue to return to the Moon and begin development of a permanent presence there. NASA outlines many reasons for going to the Moon, and I basically agree.

The biggest, perhaps, is that the Moon is our stepping stone to the rest of the solar system, and to space itself. On the Moon we can learn how to colonize and survive on a body outside the Earth, how to make it economically viable and overall self-sufficient and sustainable.

I also think it is vitally important that as a species we feed our adventurous spirit and imaginations. As a child the Apollo missions helped ignite my life-long fascination with space and science in general. Exploring and colonizing space gives us a focus that is bigger than any individual, corporation, or even nation.

Half a century is long enough. I hope we stay on track for the 2020 target of getting back to the Moon. The recent economic crisis, looming budget deficits and national debt will make it tempting to scale back or delay plans for returning to the Moon – and many fear that will happen.

In my opinion, however, we should think of developing a Moon-base not as a luxury but as critical infrastructure – an investment on our future. Short term investments for long term payouts are hard political sells, unfortunately. Political pressure favors short term goals at the expense of the long term.

It will take another Herculean effort of political will to keep us on track for the Moon.

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