The last manned moon landing happened in 1972; humans haven’t set foot on Earth’s natural satellite for almost 45 years. Now, public agencies like NASA and private firms have announced plans for near-term, manned missions to Mars while the new federal administration pushes for travel to the moon. Which one is worth championing as mankind’s next “giant leap?”
Two years ago, NASA unveiled a proposal to shift away from Near Earth Objects to the Red Planet. As noted by Universe Today, NASA administrator Charlie Bolden responded “been there, done that” when asked about further moon exploration, a sentiment that matches popular opinion: The moon is a dry, dusty boring rock that doesn’t offer anything unique or interesting. But is the moon really “been there, done that?” Maybe not.
Consider that we’ve mapped just 5 percent of the moon’s surface, and the Apollo mission astronauts didn’t stray far from their landing craft — the movements of Apollo 11’s crew could fit into a regulation-size soccer field, the article explained. And while 2010 was a low point for lunar exploration when the Obama administration turfed the Constellation program, other space agencies continued to investigate Earth’s nearest neighbor and discovered traces of water.
According to National Geographic, further analysis of volcanic “glass beads” brought back by the Apollo missions and the discovery of widespread volcanic deposits suggests that there’s a significant amount of water trapped under the moon’s surface — some estimates suggest that liberating this water would produce a one-yard-deep (0.91-meter) ocean covering the moon’s surface. In addition, volatile compounds were discovered at the lunar poles held there by “cold traps,” while the moon environment itself offers the chance to test out new space suit, habitat and research technologies.
While NASA may be focused on Mars, other space agencies and private companies are preparing humans to live on the moon. As noted by Tech Crunch, volunteers at China’s premier aeronautics university will live in a sealed, controlled environment for 200 days to simulate a lunar habitat. China was the third country to successfully complete a lunar “soft landing” and plans to put humans on the surface of the moon in 15 to 20 years. According to the European Space Agency, it is also testing out potential habitats to examine the impact of lighting changes on astronauts’ circadian rhythms and abilities to function in a non-earth environment.
Red Planet or Constant Companion?
So what’s the best bet for mankind’s next giant leap?
Mars is absolutely the “stretch goal” here — the stuff-of-dreams red planet that comes with potential discoveries of ancient life and could offer a viable “second Earth” scenario. But it comes with big challenges: At its closest, Mars is still around 35 million miles from Earth, meaning the trip takes at least six months using cutting-edge technology. And depending on the planet’s position, communication with Earth could take anywhere from three to 22 minutes one-way, while dust storms could play havoc with machinery and communications.
In an interview with New Scientist, social-media savvy astronaut Chris Hadfield explained that the moon is our best option largely because we’ve been there before and can control many of the variables, improving the chance of success.
Ultimately, the case for the moon comes down to three key benefits:
- Science – From exploration of the surface to mapping the poles and obtaining more samples of lunar rock and regolith, there’s “good science” to be done on the moon, according to Mike Seibert of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
- Commercialization – Space tourism is just the start. The moon offers viable mining, machinery and eventually housing opportunities.
- Technology – We need to develop technologies that allow humans to live off-planet indefinitely. Iteration and innovation can happen quickly when the moon is just a three-day trip; on Mars this simply isn’t possible.
A trip to Mars? Or travel to the moon? It doesn’t have to be either/or — but shooting for the moon offers the biggest short-term benefit.
Image Credit: Pixabay