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To the Moon or Mars?

7/17/2009 05:49:00 PM

40 years ago yesterday Apollo 11 blasted off from Earth on its way to its historic July 20 landing on the Moon. NASA has a big celebration campaign underway in honor of the anniversary. They recently released very nice partially restored Apollo 11 video footage in HD. One of the interesting things NASA is doing to commemorate the anniversary is replaying the mission audio in real time just as it was recorded from July 16-24, 1969. The NASA Apollo 40th website has all kinds of other goodies like lost audio and transcripts that are worth checking out too. For more blast from the past nostalgia with a modern twist, the website "We Choose the Moon" is also broadcasting the mission audio with other rich multimedia treats, including "live" twitter transmissions from the Apollo CapCom, spacecraft, and lander.

I have ambivalent feelings about the Apollo 40th anniversary. One one hand, I think this celebration to commemorate one of humanity's most significant and inspiring achievements is perfectly natural and warranted. On the other, it is a painful reminder that in the past 40 years we haven't pushed the envelope of human space exploration beyond low earth orbit. President Bush's 2004 Vision for Space Exploration policy has had significant effects throughout NASA as it reorganizes itself to return to the Moon and eventually reach Mars via the Constellation Program. The implementation of this new exploration strategy is not without its critics, and the Augustine Commision is currently conducting an independent review to sort out whether the approach needs adjusting.



One debate is whether the main focus should be on returning humans to the Moon or going to Mars. While I think we can and should do both, my preference is to have a space program with Mars as its primary goal. Mars is a more hospitable place and offers exciting science opportunities due to the presence of water and possibility for life. A human Mars mission poses unique challenges for technology development like protecting a crew on the long journey from radiation and bone/muscle loss. Plus, with companies like SpaceX and initiatives like the Google Lunar X PRIZE poised to revolutionize how we travel to low earth orbit and the Moon, I think government could better focus its attention on the more ambitious goal of reaching Mars. This doesn't preclude government returning to the Moon at all, but it means activities on the Moon should not be ends in themselves and instead should directly contribute to a Mars pioneering effort. In situ manufacturing the rocket fuel needed for a return journey will make a Mars mission affordable for a few tens of billions of dollars, so it is within our reach. We just need the collective will to do so. Yesterday on the NPR talk show On Point with Tom Ashbrook Mars Society President Robert Zubrin argued this point very convincingly (and plugged our FMARS mission). You may want to have a listen below or read his book.


I found Zubrin's analogy comparing the Moon with Greenland and Mars with America during the European age of exploration particularly apt. Although Greenland was certainly closer and easier to reach than America, no major colonization happened there because it's such a barren, inhospitable place. America had abundant resources available to support a pioneering population. Ultimately, the inventions created by Americans like democracy, electricity, telegraph (later telephone), railroad, etc. changed the world and Europe along with it. That kind of innovation was possible thanks to the challenges, opportunities, and resources America offered. The same kind of leap in human civilization can happen if we expand the frontier to Mars.

In other lunar news...

One very interesting thing that caught my eye today was a NASA press release showing some of the first images taken by the recently launched Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) camera. The pictures released today shows five of the six Apollo landing sites (only Apollo 12 wasn't imaged). The lunar modules are visible on the surface, and in at least the case of Apollo 14, you can also see footprints and equipment left behind. I wonder if the "scientific instruments" seen in this photo is the Apollo 14 seismometer. Very cool!



Finally, it's also of note that today marks the 34th anniversary of the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project docking. That mission was politically very important, and it marked the end of the Apollo era and beginning of the Shuttle era. As the Shuttle era is now drawing to a close, what will be the next chapter in the story of space exploration? It's up to us.

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