Why go back to the Moon?
50 years on, what's the case for going back to the Moon and why should we go now?
50 years on from the first humans on the Moon, space agencies and private companies around the world are talking seriously about who will be next.
The Moon is a compelling goal for emerging space agencies that are keen to demonstrate their expertise in space, but NASA has recently been the most ambitious voice, promising to land the first woman and the next man on the Moon by 2024.
But why go back to the Moon? What can we do this time around that wasn’t possible back in 1969?
Between the mid-1970s and the mid-2000s the Moon was largely abandoned, in favour of space stations and long-term human missions in low-Earth orbit.
But in the past ten years, the Moon has seen a new flurry of robotic missions that have hugely increased our understanding of the Moon, but also raised more questions than answers.
NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, which launched in 2009, has given us unprecedented detail to the entire globe of the Moon, capturing both the historic landing sites of the Apollo missions and the brand new craters from the meteorites that constantly bombard the Moon. Also in 2009, an instrument on India’s Chandrayaan-1 mission has given us compelling evidence that water ice exists at the lunar poles, in craters hidden in perpetual darkness.
In 2019 alone, three countries have sent missions to the Moon.
China successfully landed its Chang’e 4 rover on the Moon in January 2019 with plans to launch Chang’e 5 at the end of the year.
In April 2019, an Israeli company, SpaceIL, attempted to become the first private company to land on the Moon, however a successful journey unfortunately ended in a crash landing.
And just this month, in September 2019, India aimed to land its Chandrayaan-2 mission on the Moon. However, contact was lost moments before the lander was expected to touch down at the lunar south pole.
The next humans on the Moon
In 2019, NASA announced its next moon shot programme, Artemis. This series of missions over the next five years will bring together its new Space Launch System rocket, its Orion crew capsule, and its plans for a lunar space station, Lunar Gateway, with the aim of landing humans on the Moon again by 2024.
This time, the nature of the missions will look completely different, with international space agencies and private companies bidding for the contract to build components of the spacecraft, and maybe even international astronauts on the first few missions.
NASA’s timeline for Artemis is incredibly ambitious, but they may not be the only organisation preparing to send humans to the Moon. The European Space Agency (ESA) is entering a partnership with NASA to provide the Orion service module for the Artemis missions, and will likely collaborate on a joint mission to send the first European astronauts to the Moon.
Private company SpaceX has promised to send Japanese space tourist Yusaku Maezawa and several artists on a high-profile slingshot around the Moon over the next few years. And with the rapid pace of China’s robotic exploration of the Moon, it would be no surprise if they too announced plans for a Chinese human mission to the Moon within the next decade or two.
The sheer breadth of current lunar missions and the audacity of plans for the next humans on the Moon begs the question: why return to the Moon and why now?
The Apollo programme was an incredible mobilisation of talent, money, and engineering in order to pull off the political symbol of landing the first humans on the Moon. In many ways, the Apollo programme invented technology that was decades ahead of its time, and NASA was incredibly lucky that the missions were so successful. Like all ‘firsts’ in human exploration, the level of risk that was considered acceptable during this lunar expedition was far higher than we would accept today. But Apollo was considered a wartime effort, and the astronauts as pioneers.
ESA’s director of human and robotic exploration, David Parker, compares the Apollo programme to the race to the south pole in 1911. “The timetable of the exploration of Antarctica mirrors that of the Moon in an uncannily close manner,” Parker says. “At the beginning of the century, there was a race to reach the South Pole and then no one went back for 50 years – just like the Moon in the 60s. Then we started building bases in Antarctica. We are now approaching that stage with our exploitation of the Moon.”
Like Antarctica, we have been slowly building the case to return to the Moon over the past 50 years.
Far more than in the 1960s, we understand the hostile effects of living long-term in space, thanks to decades of astronauts living and working on space stations. We have developed ways of keeping astronauts healthy for on long duration missions, and we have far more advanced robotics that can be the workhorses and reconnaissance for a future lunar base.
We now know that the Moon’s soil holds the raw ingredients necessary to not only build a base but also extract key resources such as water, hydrogen, and oxygen for human missions.
With the advance of private space companies such as SpaceX and Boeing, we now have the technology to go back to the Moon for a much lower cost than previously, and international partnerships bring together the expertise and budgets that can achieve more than one national space agency alone.
Explorers by nature
But technology aside, we will return to the Moon because we are explorers by nature. We have always explored and sent ambassadors to the extremes just to find out what is there.
Once again, the Antarctica base is a good analogy. On the edge of the world, in conditions hostile to life, we set up research stations to live, work, and explore. Scientists are sent on stints to Antarctica to run experiments that explore everything from the local wildlife to the effects of climate change to cosmic rays from the universe. It was polar scientists who discovered the hole in the ozone layer and who continue to monitor the impact of the climate crisis.
The Moon is similarly ripe for further scientific exploration. The Apollo astronauts only brought back a tiny fraction of rock, all largely from the same equatorial band on the Moon’s near side. While they trained as geologists, and while the rocks they collected left an incredible scientific legacy, the Apollo astronauts only just scratched the surface.
Because the Moon has no atmosphere, tectonics, or weather, it has sat largely unchanged for billions of years as a time capsule of the early Solar System. If we want to know how the planets formed and what the conditions were like in the early Solar System 4.5 billion years ago, then the Moon is the place to go. It may hold the clues as to how things mixed in the early Solar System, how the planets migrated and collided, and perhaps even how water and the building blocks of life came to be here on Earth. But we need scientists that can explore the extremes of the Moon – its highlands that represent the original lunar crust before meteorite bombardment, and its permanently shadowed poles where water ice lies just below the surface.
With a new base on the Moon, we can devise countless experiments that seek to solve current mysteries of space science: how did the Moon form, what caused the geology of its near and far side to be so different, how did water arrive on the Moon, how does the solar wind affect the regions around the Moon, what triggered the period of catastrophic collisions known as the Late Heavy Bombardment, what advances in radio astronomy could be made from the radio-silent far side of the Moon… ?
These questions are just the ones we can predict, but if human exploration has taught us anything, it’s that it is the unpredictable discoveries and surprising technological developments that lead to the monumental changes in human history.
To find out more about our exploration of the Moon past, present, and future, join the National Space Centre team at New Scientist Live between 10-13 October 2019 in London.
Our experts will guide you through the Moon’s geology and the challenges of future missions through interactive artefact handling and rockets workshops for all ages.
To book tickets, visit the New Scientist Live webpage.
About the author: Dr Tamela Maciel is the Space Communications Manager at the National Space Centre.