By James Bernstein
Why do we have to go back to the moon? Ever since NASA started trying, unsuccessfully so far, to launch its unmanned Artemis I spacecraft, which is supposed to explore some regions of the moon, lots of voices have been heard decrying the effort. It’s too expensive, they say. We did that already. What’s to be gained? We have other priorities here on Earth.
Those are challenging questions. We put a dozen astronauts on the moon in six missions between 1969 and 1972, and we spent about $25 billion doing so. In today’s dollars, that’s about $250 billion.
For those who were around on July 20, 1969 — the day Neil Armstrong stepped onto the surface of another world for the first time in human history — it may be hard to understand why we wouldn’t want to relive that glory. And glory it may be, but we must deal with some of the issues raised by the naysayers.
One of them, perhaps the most important, is priorities. The Earth’s climate is in desperate trouble, beset by life-threatening heat waves, melting polar ice caps and drying lakebeds. Pollution is so dense in some Asian cities that people are forced on many days to wear masks or stay at home. Couldn’t billions of dollars be better spent combating climate change?
Yes, money could, and must, be spent for that purpose, and soon, too. But we have to multi-task. While we must legislate against air-polluting companies and work cooperatively with our largest competitor, China, to bring environmental order to our plant — and at the same time battle those who claim that it’s all a hoax — we must move forward, as we always have, ever since we invented the wheel.
Once Artemis I gets off the ground, some exciting missions are ahead. A manned lunar fly-by, Artemis II, may come as soon as 2024. The first manned landing, Artemis III, might happen as early as 2025. And this time we won’t just plant a flag on the moon and say, “We did it.”
One of the biggest reasons for a return to the moon is that it will serve as a steppingstone to Mars. We are already examining some rocks that could contain clues to the presence of some kind of microbial life on Mars. Human inspection of those rocks could provide some extraordinary insight into the origins of life in the universe.
Could Mars one day be made habitable by humans? We won’t find that out unless we go there. We should remember that the rock samples brought back from the moon by the Apollo astronauts told us much about the moon’s geological history, including its physical and chemical makeup.
A narrower goal may be found on the moon itself. NASA has announced 13 potential landing sites, all in the moon’s South Pole region. NASA scientists say that ice has been confirmed inside craters that never see any sunlight. We all know that where there is water, frozen or otherwise, there may be, or may have been, life.
Those sites “are some of the best places to go for lunar geology and understanding lunar ice and sampling lunar ice,” Bethany Ehlmann, associate director of the Keck Institute for Space Studies at the California Institute of Technology, told National Public Radio recently.
Our Apollo missions all led to new technologies in electronics, aerospace and medicine. A more advanced program focused on returning to the moon, with an eye toward reaching Mars, is bound to lead to even more such advances.
A NASA study from 2013 estimated that commercial products that have emerged from the space agency’s research return between $100 million and $1 billion annually to the U.S. economy. Many of those had their origins in the Apollo program.
Lastly, but by no means least important, re-energizing our moon/Mars efforts is going to inspire thousands of young people to become engineers, technicians, lunar geologists and astronauts. What an exciting future they face. But we must get going first.
James Bernstein is editor of the Long Beach Herald. Comments? Jbernstein@liherald.com.