For and Against: Should we send manned missions to the Moon?
Writer, broadcaster and filmmaker
Profile: Chris Riley
Chris Riley is a British writer, broadcaster and filmmaker specialising in the history of science. He makes frequent appearances on TV and radio, broadcasting on space flight and astronomy. He is a veteran of two Nasa astrobiology missions and is the author of the Haynes Apollo 11 Owners’ Workshop Manual.
Fellow, director and author
Profile: James M Clash
Jim Clash, a fellow and director at the Explorers Club, has purchased a ticket to fly into suborbital space with Virgin Galactic Airways. He is author of ‘The Right Stuff: Interviews with Icons of the 1960s’ (Askmen, June 2012) and has interviewed six of the 12 moonwalkers.
Why is going back to the Moon with humans important? To answer this we have to look at why we went there in the first place. It’s been 40 years since we last put a foot on another planet and we’ve not set foot anywhere since. It’s well known that the driver for the Apollo programme was a Cold War race, but a lesser-known fact is that there was initially a serious scientific purpose behind it.Nasa’s original reason to go to the Moon was to read the missing pages of the geological book on our planet, where very few rocks go back much beyond the Cambrian. But with the Moon there is a complete record of the bombardment period and further back. And this was the scientific reason upon which the proposition of sending men to the Moon was founded. But that was soon forgotten as it became simply about beating the Russians, which we know happened in the subsequent missions that landed 12 men on the Moon.
We stopped going in 1972 not because we’d finished exploring the Moon, or because human exploration was thought to be a poorer alternative to robotics, but because the race was won. However, we had only scratched the surface, landing in only six locations, spending only 300 hours there. To put into context how little we’ve actually explored, the surface area of the Moon is about the same as the continent of Africa. So it’s impossible to say that you’ve discovered everything there is to discover about the Moon.
There was some excellent science to come out of Apollo, but it was too brief and in some respects a tourist mission. The job was started but it certainly wasn’t finished. And so we needed to ask if we could finish the job with robotics, orbiters, mineral mappers and geochemistry with remote sensing instruments on satellites.
But there really is no substitute to the ‘hammer and a hand lens’ approach to field geology when it comes to ground-truthing and going over the surface of another world with a fine-toothed comb. If you continue to send robotics to Mars for instance, you will always be left with puzzles, and be left wondering if the rock you just trundled over actually contained the fossil of a trilobite. But if you go there, you can tap that rock with a hammer and follow the traces that geologists on Earth are highly trained to do.
We might find evidence of a second genesis event in the Solar System that is ultimately driving our curiosity. Having said that, it is unlikely we’ll find traces of life on the Moon as it is an igneous body, and so far as we know it was never awash with water. But the point remains that good field science is better done with people than robots.
We’ve been exploring Space now for 51 years and that is our current frontier of exploration. If you go to a frontier and then step back from it, for whatever political or economic excuse, then you are turning your back on the potential blue-sky benefits that may result, just as they did with Apollo. Put a complicated and challenging problem on the table for human beings, and who knows where it will lead?
In the 1960s Nasa invested in the silicon-chip technology that was just emerging, and despite needing only a few hundred, they ordered two million to kick-start a new industry. Partially this was to ensure reliability, but one of the spin-offs was the cheap laptop computers, mobile phone and telecomms technology and ultimately the spread of the internet we see today. Who would have thought that sponsoring these types of projects could result in what is essentially the greatest engine of change, responsible for most of the world’s GDP?
And that’s the danger in backing away from stuff that’s hard to do, such as manned space flight. But I’m pessimistic about returning to the Moon because I think that Apollo was historically speaking something of a blip, and the coincidence of events that lead to that programme is unlikely to happen again.
We’re all thinking about the great days of the Apollo missions now because of the recent death of Neil Armstrong. And whilst this is a sad thing it is inevitably generating a great call in the media for us to return to the Moon. If we wish to do that, and I’m not sure that we should, we need a focus such as the great Kennedy speech of 50 years ago when he said that the US would put a man on the Moon within a decade. Now that was a bold statement and I’d say that probably most people didn’t think that it could be done. But there was a political reason to do it, and we devoted tremendous resources to it. And we pulled it off in 1969, when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin did walk on the Moon. But today what we need is for someone to draw a line in the sand for Mars. We need someone to say “we will put a man on Mars within x years”. And once we’ve drawn that goal the question becomes, how do we do it? Will it be a US led mission or an international consortium of space countries such as Japan, China, the former Soviet Union?
But then the next question is: do we need to go to the Moon first, as some of the Apollo moon-walkers suggest, and set up a base there? Or do we just focus on Mars and forget about going back to the Moon? Some of the astronauts I talk to say there is a benefit in going back to the Moon, while others say it is a waste of money because we only have limited resources and this will delay our attempts on Mars. Buzz Aldrin has proposed a Mars Cycler that will relay between the two planets, taking about five months to complete a single journey. His only question is: what are we waiting for?
Another big question of course is: how are we going to pay for it? With opinion divided among astronauts I can’t tell you the best way to approach the issue. But I can tell you that Mars is the ball game. We have been to the Moon and this was a great achievement, but the real frontier is beyond that.
We can, and do, send probes to Mars - as we have just done with Curiosity rover - but the public doesn’t seem to get behind robotic programmes in the way that I feel they would with manned missions. The thing about a rover is you get a pretty good bang for your buck. But if you introduce the human element to Mars you get more bucks. Once you get the public behind these missions you can justify the taxpayers’ dollars to fund it.
You can’t imagine Formula 1 racecars without drivers in the cockpit, being operated remotely by guys at the side of the track. People wouldn’t pay to go to see that. They want humans involved. And spaceflight is like that too. It’s a cultural thing. You can send as much technology into space as you want, but without the human element you won’t capture the imagination of the public in the way that Armstrong and Aldrin did. And humanity needs heroes.
Now, the astronauts themselves were serious engineers and test pilots and they didn’t think of themselves as explorers or heroes. They will tell you that they had no philosophical vision and that they would feel very inadequate when asked to describe their emotions in relation to their space missions. Their seat on their respective missions came down to a whole set of factors, and landing on the Moon was for them just another thing on the checklist and they looked at it very clinically.
But we don’t, and that’s a vitally important distinction. We romanticise space flight. They don’t. They’re too busy. Don’t get me wrong, I have no objection to a manned mission to the Moon, but there will be little public demand for that if one of the options on the table is a manned mission to Mars. Mars is the real deal. This is where we will get our 21st Century rocket heroes, our new Neil Armstrong and our new Buzz Aldrin. *
Do you agree?
We must go back to the Moon
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