How about a Return to the Moon?

Should we return to the Moon?. Image Credit: NASA

It has been decades since the first astronauts walked on the lunar surface. Since then, no human has set foot on our nearest neighbor in space. Sure, we have sent many landing probes, but no people. The time is right to ask ourselves: why have we not been back since? What are the reasons to return? How does lunar exploration fit in with missions to other planets? All good questions that mission planners around the world are discussing.

What Keeps us From the Moon?

The last time people landed on the Moon was in 1972. Since then, a variety of political and economic reasons have kept space agencies from continuing those bold steps. 

  • Perhaps the most obvious reason is the sheer cost of such a project. NASA spent billions of dollars during the 1960s and early '70s developing the Apollo missions. These happened at the height of the Cold War, when the U.S. and Former Soviet Union were at odds politically, but were not actively fighting each other in land wars. The expenses of trips to the Moon were tolerated by the American people and Soviet citizens for the sake of patriotism and staying ahead of our rivals. In today’s economic times, things are different. Among other things, it's difficult get a political concensus on spending money to return to the Moon.
  • The second reason we have yet to return to the Moon is the sheer danger of such an enterprise. Faced with the immense challenges that plagued NASA during the 1950s and '60s, it is no small wonder that we ever made it to the Moon. Several astronauts lost their lives during the Apollo program, and there were also many technological setbacks along the way. However, long-term missions aboard the International Space Station show that humans CAN live and work in space, and new developments in space launch and transport capabilities are promising safer ways to get to the Moon.
  • The third reason for a lack of lunar missions that we haven’t really had a need to return to the Moon. While there are always interesting and scientifically important experiments that can be done, there hasn’t been anything of such pressing importance to justify the expense and danger of making the trip. With the advances of robotic space probes, a great amount of data can be gathered at a much lower cost and without endangering human life. The “big picture” questions, like how did the solar system form, would require much longer and more extensive trips than just a couple days on the Moon.

    Things are Changing

    After decades of little interest in returning to the Moon, it has suddenly became popular again. Current NASA mission scenarios include trips to the lunar surface and also to an asteroid, using the new Orion spacecraft. So, why is NOW a good time to return to the Moon? And, who is going?

    • Traveling to the Moon will still be expensive. However, NASA mission planners feel that the benefits outweigh the cost. Even more important, the government foresees a good return on investment. That's actually a very good argument. The Apollo missions required a significant initial investment. However, technology — weather satellite systems, global positioning systems (GPS) and advanced communication devices among other advancements — created to support the lunar missions and subsequent planetary science missions is now in everyday use. We see it in medical advances, communications, computerization, and everyday technology. People working in industries using tech from space exploration have good jobs, they spend their money on housing, goods, services, and taxes, which pays the government back for its initial investment. The money that the government received from these technologies significantly outweighs the costs of the program. NASA argues that it would expect the same sort of advancement this time around, with good returns to the government.
    • Other countries are looking at lunar missions, most specifically China and Japan. Their interest may well spur American and European interest in speeding up mission planning. The Chinese have been very clear about their intentions, and have good capability to carry out a long-term lunar mission. 
    • The technology available now, and that to be developed during the program, would allow us to do much more detailed (and longer) studies than in the past. Scientists would get the opportunity to answer some of the big questions about how our solar system was formed, or the details about how Moon was created and its geology. Lunar exploration would stimulate new avenues of study.
    • Missions to Mars are also hot news these days. Some scenarios see humans heading to the Red Planet within a few years, while others foresee Mars missions by the 2030s. Returning to the Moon is an important step in Mars mission planning. The hope is that human missions to the Moon will help us learn to live and work on other worlds for the long term.We are already exploring Mars with robotic probes such as Curiosity in advance of human missions.
    • Finally, there are valuable resources on the Moon that can be used for other space missions. Liquid oxygen is a major component of the propellant needed for current space travel. NASA believes that this resource can be easily extracted from the Moon and stored at deposit sites for use by other missions — particularly by sending astronauts to Mars. There are many other minerals, and even some water stores, that can be mined, as well.

    The Verdict

    NASA has shown that, although the initial cost of a human space mission can be quite expensive, it can more than pay for itself over the long run. That, coupled with the expected advances in science and technology that can be expected, there is great overall benefit.

    More importantly, however, is the fact that humans have always made an effort to understand the universe, and this is an important step in our understanding. And it is an important first step if we ever want to set foot on Mars...and beyond.

    Edited and revised by Carolyn Collins Petersen