Jazzing Up Lunar Exploration Plans

ALBUQUERQUE,New Mexico -- While many scientists believe that humanity has literally onlyscratched the surface of the Moon interms of scientific exploration and discovery, they acknowledge that a lot ofwork remains to be done to convince the public that current U.S.plans to return to the Moon are more than a "been there, done that" repeatof the Apollo program.

Someof the scientists who gathered here Feb. 11-15 for the 2007 Space Technologyand Applications International Forum noted that the Moon is a large naturalsatellite with as much surface area as the African continent. In addition, itcan be reached in three days' travel time - as the rocket flies, containsimportant natural resources, and offers a novel environment that can eventuallybe inhabited.

Butthey also said convincing the taxpaying public that the Moon is worthy of ahuman return requires far more evocative scenarios than those that have beenhave been used so far to promote NASA's Vision for SpaceExploration.

"Yes,we've been there, but we haven't done that - and there's so much that yet todo...things that are actually really exciting," said Brent Sherwood, Manager ofthe Opportunity Development office at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California. "We've got tostart talking about the kinds of things that will get people to support andembrace [a lunar return] rather than either oppose it or be bored by it," hetold SPACE.com.

Sherwoodsaid that a lack of clarity about the value of returning to the Moon makes theplan vulnerable to public and political criticism, so much so that NASA's lunar ambitionscould be killed. During the conference he outlined a number of scenarios forfuture lunar activity that could improve the image of the program.

Global dialog

InApril 2006, NASA convened a workshop intended to begin a long-term globaldialog about what humanity will do on, and with, Earth's Moon. The purpose ofthat confab was to glean ideas from diverse stakeholders -- international,commercial, scientific, and governmental -- that could be organized into a"global lunar exploration strategy" -a strategy that agencies, entrepreneurs, scientists, and enthusiasts could useto explain the purpose and importance of lunar activities to their governments,investors, sponsors, and public.

Asone of the leaders of seven different groups to solicit views from some 200participants, Sherwood noted that the workshop generated hundreds of candidateactivities that might be pursued on the Moon.

Overallgoals and objectives emerged, spotlighting how nations could work together tocontinue exploring the Moon, using both humans and machines to enableincreasingly sophisticated lunar activities, specifically:

  • Conduct science to gain new knowledge
  • Improve the human condition
  • Provide economic growth
  • Enable deeper exploration of the solar system
  • Ultimately establish human settlements off Earth

Tobuild support for lunarexploration detailed scenarios will be vital early on, whether or not theyturn out to accurately predict reality 20 years hence, Sherwood said.

Moon-based scenarios

Sherwoodhas fleshed out a series of vignettes of what could actually be done on theMoon, such as build simple observatories that open new wavelength regimes;institute a public-private lunar development corporation; as well as rehearseplanetary protection protocols for Mars.

Theseand many other scenarios have the capacity to startle and inspirenon-specialists, while helping to communicate lunar activities in years tocome, such as:

Paving for dust control: The native lunar environment is awretched place for routine operations. But so are coal mines, nuclear reactors,war zones, steel foundries, the Sahara desert, or even the traffic-choked streetsof Manila or Manhattan--places wherehuman enterprise routinely operates. One of the most insidious environmentalfactors on the Moon is lunar dust and there are ways to mitigate this peskygrime.

Establishing a colony of continuously active robots: Whatevercapabilities are provided to human explorers they can be amplified many-fold byrobotic abilities. Robots don't tire or get bored, have less expensive"life-support" requirements, and can be designed to be less susceptible to variationsin lighting, temperature, and hazards than humans. They cannot yet emulatehumans, but by 2030 -- a reasonable timeframe for lunar base buildup - they maybe getting quite close to having such handiness.

Designer biology: A key lunar activity could be thedevelopment of organisms that accommodate hard radiation, lower atmosphericpressure, different partial pressures of atmospheric gases, alien soils, longdark periods, strong blasts of ultraviolet, and produce more nutrients thannative Earth species can. A lunar laboratory could explore a range of speciesthat are tailor-made.

A search for pieces of ancient Earth: The Moon hasrecorded Earth-space history since its formation. There should be rocks in thelunar topside that came from Earth in that early age. How would we recognizethem? How long, how far, how deep would we have to hunt to find them?

Establish a virtual real-time network to enable publicengagement: On the wall sized high definition screens of the future,people will want to see to live feeds of lunar wilderness or worksiteactivities. Viewers would be able "walk around" on the Moon in immersivevirtual reality - at school or home settings, not in theme parks. Lunar workerblogs could be highly popular, connecting Earth and Moon inhabitants as lunarliving becomes part of daily "modern" life.

Conducting lunar kitchen science: Get down to themost practical things of all...how to cook, how to clean, how to live inone-sixth gravity and within a hermetic environment at risk of dust infiltration,rapid decompression, radiation exposure, and temperature extremes. After all,until you can make a martini and cook an omelet, you can't have a hotel.

Breaking out of the bubble

"Wedon't have to paint an integrated architecture. The only people that care aboutthat are the Congress, NASA planners...aerospace companies. What gets peopleinterested is a little view that's very detailed of something that they can getinside of...that they can get interested about," Sherwood said.

"Ithink to the outside world we are really boring," Sherwood added. "We spend somuch time talking to ourselves. We are in this little bubble that we perceiveto be relevant to the world...but the world doesn't perceive it that way."

Sherwoodsaid that there's need to break out of that bubble and talk about things thatwill be happening on the Moon of possible interest to the general public, tohelp shore up and sustain support.

"Otherwisewhat's going to happen...it's going to be a constant uphill battle," Sherwoodconcluded.

Commercial and international enterprise

Alsoat the STAIF 2007 meeting, a technical committee of the American Institute ofAeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) that focuses on space colonization issued aposition statement on future utilization of the Moon.

Thegroup recommended research, development, technology and engineering goals inorder to establish a Moon base by 2015 - projecting outward to 2050 and thecreation of the first self-sustained, permanent lunar settlement of roughly1,000 humans.

Thestudy team recommended "robust implementation of lunar settlements withcommercial and international enterprise," explained Edward McCullough, chair ofthe AIAA technical committee from the Boeing Company, Huntington Beach, California.

Amonga set of recommendations, the committee called for the United States to work withinternational partners to pursue free-market rules to the development of space;international conventions on property and mineral rights; and land managementconventions to include provisions for homesteading, McCullough reported.

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Leonard David
Space Insider Columnist

Leonard David is an award-winning space journalist who has been reporting on space activities for more than 50 years. Currently writing as Space.com's Space Insider Columnist among his other projects, Leonard has authored numerous books on space exploration, Mars missions and more, with his latest being "Moon Rush: The New Space Race" published in 2019 by National Geographic. He also wrote "Mars: Our Future on the Red Planet" released in 2016 by National Geographic. Leonard  has served as a correspondent for SpaceNews, Scientific American and Aerospace America for the AIAA. He was received many awards, including the first Ordway Award for Sustained Excellence in Spaceflight History in 2015 at the AAS Wernher von Braun Memorial Symposium. You can find out Leonard's latest project at his website and on Twitter.