Half a Century Later, Is It Lunacy to Return to the Moon?

By William J. Furney

Humans have not set foot on their nearest celestial satellite for half a century, and does anyone really care? Fifty years ago today, two American men descended onto the Moon, planted their nation’s flag in the chalky soil and swiftly departed — an electrifying moment relayed live back on Earth and that for a time in a warring world we forgot about all our many troubles and saw a bigger picture. 

It heralded the first time humans had left their captive planet since we began evolving from primitive forms of life some 200,000 years ago and stepped onto another, albeit barren, world. 

Because there’s nothing much on the Moon, which is believed to have formed through a cosmic collision a mass of matter the size of massive Mars had with the Earth some 4.5 billion years ago — although we now have confirmation of frozen lunar water, which may come in handy if we’re to establish a presence on our nearest neighbour in space and one that has such an impact on our planet, most notably our tides, as the Moon’s effect on space-time (aka gravity) interacts with the liquid mass on Earth. 

And we are now, apparently, headed back to the Moon, to develop a sort of staging post in our ongoing and as-yet elusive goal to reach the Red Planet that is Mars. NASA, which brought us the Man on the Moon in the first place, is planning a sequel by the middle of the next decade. 

“In the half-century since people visited the Moon, NASA has continued to push the boundaries of knowledge to deliver on the promise of American ingenuity and leadership in space,” the American space agency says. “And NASA will continue that work by moving forward to the Moon, with astronauts landing on the lunar South Pole by 2024.”

Here’s a rendering of what that might look like — it shows Moon-workers busy harvesting oxygen from the lunar soil, where the essential life-supporting element is believed to be abundant:

(Credit: Science Applications International Corporation/Pat Rawlings)

Why has it taken 50 years to get back to the space place we started from when people — the late Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, 89 — first walked on a rock outside our own? In total, 24 men on the Apollo missions that ended in 1972 have landed on the Moon’s low-gravity surface, but to what end? It seemed as though — besting Russia and its first-man-in-space, Yuri Gagarin, aside — there was little to gain from the costly missions to an object with little to apparently offer. 

It’s because interest waned and politicians couldn’t be bothered, and as a result budgets were slashed. Now, NASA is working with the private sector to achieve its aims. “NASA is going to the Moon with commercial and international partners to explore faster and explore more together. This work will bring new knowledge and opportunities and inspire the next generation,” it promises. “In going to the Moon, NASA is laying the foundation that will eventually enable human exploration of Mars. The Moon will provide a proving ground to test technologies and resources that will take humans to Mars and beyond, including building a sustainable, reusable architecture.”

Detractors say we should focus on the huge problems on planet Earth before going on stratospherically expensive space adventures, while others argue we’re destroying our home at such a rapid rate that we need to find a pristine place to decamp to when it all goes to hell. 

Whatever view you hold, one thing is undeniable, and that’s that mankind (or, perhaps, personkind, so as not to be “sexist”) is nothing if not adventurous. It’s fundamentally embedded into our spirit to go to places we’ve never been — whether we need to or not — just because we can. We are, after all, collectively suffering from an overarching desire to know where we came from, if we are alone and what the ultimate purpose of our existence in the universe is all about. We are therefore driven to seek out everything we can.

That will never change, until, if ever, we get the answers we so desperately seek. In the meantime, we will keep on exploring brave new worlds.

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