Humans to the Moon: When and Why?

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

It has been decades since the first astronauts walked on the lunar surface. Since then, nobody has set foot on our nearest neighbor in space. Sure, there have been a fleet of probes headed to the Moon, and they have supplied a lot of information about conditions there. 

Is it time to send people to the Moon? The answer, coming from the space community, is a qualified "yes". What that means is, there are missions on the planning boards, but also many questions about what people will do to get there and what they'll do once they set foot on the dusty surface.

What are the Obstacles?

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. However, the big issues are money, safety, and justifications.

The most obvious reason that lunar missions aren't happening as quickly as people would like is their cost. 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 the 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 American people and Soviet citizens for the sake of patriotism and staying ahead of each other. Although there are many good reasons to go back to the Moon, it's tough to get a political consensus on spending taxpayer money to do it.

Safety is Important

The second reason hampering lunar exploration 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 anyone 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.

Why Go?

The third reason for a lack of lunar missions that there needs to be a clear mission and goals.  While there are always interesting and scientifically important experiments that can be done, people are also interested in "return on investment". That's particularly true for companies and institutions interested in making money from lunar mining, science research, and tourism. It's easier to send robot probes to do science, although it's better to send people. With human missions come higher expenses in terms of life support and safety. 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, require much longer and more extensive trips than just a couple days on the Moon.

Things are Changing

The good news is that attitudes toward lunar trips can and do change, and it's likely that a human mission to the Moon will happen within a decade or less.

Current NASA mission scenarios include trips to the lunar surface and also to an asteroid, although the asteroid trip may be of more interest to mining companies. 

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 are now in everyday use, not just in space, but on Earth. New technologies aimed specifically at future lunar missions would also find their way into the world's economies, spurring a good return on investment

Expanding Lunar Interest

Other countries are looking quite seriously at sending lunar missions, most specifically China and Japan.  The Chinese have been very clear about their intentions, and have good capability to carry out a long-term lunar mission. Their activities may well spur American and European agencies into a mini "race" to also build lunar bases. Lunar orbiting laboratories may make an excellent "next step", no matter who builds and sends them. 

The technology available now, and that to be developed during any concentrated missions to the Moon would allow scientists to do much more detailed (and longer) studies of the Moon's surface and sub-surface systems. 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. People also expect that lunar tourism would be another way to maximize exploration. 

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 people could spend time on the Moon to learn how to live in a forbidding environment. If something went wrong, rescue would be only a few days away, rather than months. 

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. Many other minerals exist, and even some water stores, that can be mined, as well.

The Verdict

Humans have always made an effort to understand the universe, and going to the Moon does seem to be a next logical step for many reasons. It will be interesting to see who starts up the next "race to the Moon". 

Edited and revised by Carolyn Collins Petersen

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Your Citation
Millis, John P., Ph.D. "Humans to the Moon: When and Why?" ThoughtCo, Mar. 19, 2018, Millis, John P., Ph.D. (2018, March 19). Humans to the Moon: When and Why? Retrieved from Millis, John P., Ph.D. "Humans to the Moon: When and Why?" ThoughtCo. (accessed March 20, 2018).