Why return to the moon?

Why Return to the Moon? by Jim Bell, author of MOON 3-D (July 2009, Sterling)

Why did we send people to the Moon 40 years ago? Mainly it was a political/nationalistic act of the Cold War, of course, but there were other lesser factors, both tangible and intangible, like the quest for scientific knowledge and the innate human need to push into new frontiers and explore the unknown. Regardless of the origin of the forces that propelled it, Apollo captured the interest and imagination of the world like no other human endeavor ever has. Now, NASA and other space agencies are thinking about how to recapture that momentum. The Space Shuttle, NASA’s human space transportation workhorse since 1980, is being retired soon after more than 120 missions (including two tragic failures). Construction of the International Space Station, which has been one of the main purposes for flying the Shuttle, is also to be completed soon. Attention is now turning towards designing and testing new heavy-lift, Apollo-like rockets that can once again launch people past low-Earth orbit-to the Moon, Mars, and beyond. Now the question is being asked anew: Why should people go back to the Moon?

Some people claim that we should return for the same kinds of political/nationalistic reasons that got us there 40 years ago. Others think we should return in order to scout for resources for future space bases and other infrastructure.  Some think we shouldn’t go back at all.  Personally, I think that people should go back to the Moon because uniquely human capabilities will be needed to make the most profound science discoveries on the Moon and other places around the solar system. The robotic exploration approach has worked well for humanity’s first age of space exploration, when the act of simply flying a probe past or landing one on new alien terrains enabled dramatic discoveries. That era is coming to an end. Now we are entering a new age of space exploration where we need to look more carefully at (and under) the landscape in a broad terrestrial and extraterrestrial context to solve the mysteries. This kind of science is familiar-it requires human explorers, whether on our own planet or on another. We will need explorers who are scientists and scientists who are explorers. Will the adventure inspire a new generation to technological and scientific greatness, like Apollo did before? We are poised at a critical moment in the future of human exploration and perhaps even of human evolution. Can we seize this moment to eventually become citizens of the entire solar system? Let’s find out!