Lunar Science Community Needs Rebuilding, Researchers Say

Lunar Science Community Needs Rebuilding, Researchers Say
This still image was cut out from a moving image taken by the HDTV onboard the KAGUYA then sent to the JAXA Usuda Deep Space Center. The Moon's surface is near the South Pole, and you can Australia (center left) and Asia (lower right) on the Earth. (In this image, the upper side of the Earth is the Southern Hemisphere, thus the Australian Continent looks upside-down.) (Image credit: JAXA/NHK.)

GOLDEN,Colo. - NASA?s plan to return to the Moon - first by robotic missions scheduledto start this year, followed by the replanting of human footprints there by2020 - will require a new cadre of lunar research and exploration specialists.

That talentlargely was dissipated after the Apollolunar landing program ended in 1972. As a result, several steps need to betaken to recuperate both the scientific and technical expertise that will beneeded to investigate and understand the Moon.

Andscientists are enthusiastic about the prospect. Many of those who attended the recentLunar and Planetary Science Conference March 10-14 in League City, Texas, saidEarth?s closest celestial neighbor is far from being a ?been there, done thatworld? that offers no unknowns worth solving. And several sessions dedicated tolunar science clearly showed a rebound of interest in the Moon.

?There willbe new lunar scientists developed in India, Japan and China ? that?s good. Butwe need more here in the United States,? observed G. Jeffrey Taylor, aplanetary scientist at the Hawaii Institute of Geophysics and Planetology atthe University of Hawaii in Honolulu.

There aretwo groups of existing lunar scientists, Taylor suggested: ?Those that havenever stopped doing it, even if it?s part time, and others that left but aredoing other planetary science.?

Taylor saidthe best place to recruit a bevy of new lunar researchers is from otherplanetary problems, particularly by broadening the interest of those that workon Mars, he said.

Particularlystriking were first results from Japan?s ongoing Kaguya lunar orbiter missionand the showing of eye-catching high-definitionvideo views of the Moon?s surface taken by that spacecraft.

Kaguya hasjoined China?sChange?1 in lunar orbit, with India?s Chandrayaan-1 carrying U.S.-providedexperiments as part of its payload - set to begin circling the Moon in a fewmonths.

ManyU.S. Lunar Missions Ahead

Given theslate of lunar missions ahead such as NASA?s Lunar ReconnaissanceOrbiter (LRO), which is scheduled to launch later this year to createhigh-resolution maps, seek landing sites, as well as search for water ice andother useful resources, NASA sorely needs new lunar experts to analyze new datasets.

Part ofthat NASA LRO mission is the Lunar Crater Observation and SensingSatellite, or LCROSS. It will launch with LRO, and then travelindependently of the orbiter and crashinto the lunar surface to search for water ice.

NASA hasseveral other lunar robotic spacecraft on the books or in the preliminaryplanning stages, such as the twin Gravity Recovery and Interior Laboratoryspacecraft and the Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer.

NASA alsois appealing to other nations to help put in place an International LunarNetwork of science nodes. That high-tech network would make use of 21st centurytechnology, with the goal of having the network running five to seven yearsfrom now.

Nations arebeing invited to fly their nodes to the lunar surface, either fixed platformsor mobile hardware. Each node would carry a core set of science instruments,and nations can add experiment packages beyond that core hub of devices.

?Thatnetwork can offer big science content,? Taylor said, ?maybe the most importantlunar science data set you can get is a global seismic network ? to helpunderstand the Moon?s composition, which tells us the details of its origin.?

?We need alunar scientist surge,? Taylor told ?We have to increase thenumbers because we have too much to do for the number of people now engaged,?he said.

Re-discoveringthe Moon

Still, interms of the size of the overall lunar research family, ?it?s very thin,? saidClive Neal a professor of civil engineering and geological sciences at theUniversity of Notre Dame in Indiana.

The firststeps toward addressing that shortfall already are under way: more missions tothe Moon and an increase in research and analysis funding, Neal told

?There is asea change going on ? and it?s the logical thing to do,? said Neal, who also ischair of NASA?s Lunar Exploration Analysis Group. Robotic spacecraft can helpset the stage for a human return to the Moon, including the establishment of alunar outpost, he added. ?So doing this ahead of the buildup of lunarinfrastructure is critical, both for exploration and for science ? as well asthe fostering of a commercial tie-in at the Moon for sustainability.?

Regardingthe need to resurrect the lunar community, Jim Green, director of NASA?sPlanetary Science Division, told in a March 31 interview: ?Thesooner we can do that the better.? The more lessons learned that can betransferred from the lunar scientists of the 1960s and 1970s to the next generationof young scientists the better, he said.

?We?regoing to go back and re-discover the Moon,? Green suggested. Thanks to earlylunar research, ?the Moon is now a much more fascinating object that is reallygoing to tell us so much more about the origin and evolution of the solarsystem,? he said.

As part ofthe agency?s effort to foster the growth of a new community of lunarscientists, NASA?s Science Mission Directorate has established the NASA LunarScience Institute. The institute, which has been charged with developing andtraining the next generation of lunar researchers, is managed by NASA?s AmesResearch Center in Moffett Field, Calif.


Therebuilding of a lunar science community is essential, said Paul Spudis, aplanetary geologist and lunar expert at the Lunar and Planetary Institute inHouston.

?We notonly need competent lunar scientists to plan and execute the future explorationof the Moon, but also to help design and build the machines and technologies weneed to learn to live and stay on the Moon ? particularly in regard to resourceutilization and long-term habitation. It is important to get started withstudents at all levels now so that a stable, experienced lunar sciencecommunity exists when we return to the Moon,? Spudis said.

HarrisonSchmitt, an Apollo 17 moonwalker, said the U.S. lunar science community is?alive, well and raring to go.? Schmitt was the only professional geologist inthe Apollo astronaut corps and the first and only scientist-astronaut onboard the Apollo program?s last voyage to the Moon in December 1972.

?The restof the world is still playing catch up relative to the dynamic lunar sciencecommunity that exists in the United States,? Schmitt told in aMarch 31 e-mail.

But Schmitttoo has concerns.

?It is notyet clear, however, if the next administration and the Congress, and thenon-NASA scientific institutions of the country, are going to provide thecontinuing funding necessary to properly prepare a future, uninterrupted lunarand planetary exploration program,? Schmitt said. That program can build onApollo and current knowledge and insights about the Moon, he added, as well ason the relationships of lunar history to that of the Earth and other planets.

Schmittsaid the prospect of such funding is under serious threat, akin to the ?samegross under-funding that infected the space shuttle development in its earlyyears and for which we have paid dearly.?

A majordevelopment program can never recover from under-funding and unrealisticmanagement constraints in its formative years, Schmitt said.


While notas daunting an issue as space program under-funding, there is a strong need fora very ?proactive recruitment? of mature, experienced field geologists to applyto become astronauts.

InSchmitt?s opinion, having an experience base that draws from terrestrialexploration in NASA?s astronaut office is particularly important now - giventhe formative phase of operational lunar surface mission planning. Thatknow-how also helps in designing exploration equipment ? as well as when crewsare selected for actual lunar mission training, he added.

?Relying onrandom volunteers to fill this role is taking the same chance we took once inApollo,? Schmitt recalled, ?and ended up with only one field geologist toparticipate in those activities.? While all went fairly well in Apollo, given aunique set of circumstances, he said, ?the times and flexibility in theplanning process were very different than now.?

In additionto astronaut recruitment, Schmitt pointed out that ?remobilization of theoutside geological community? to take part in background and mission trainingwill be a critical component of a fruitful exploration program for the Moon andeventually for Mars.

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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'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 has 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.