Is the Moon Really a ‘Been There Done That’ World?


If there’s only one thing we’ve learned from all the highly successful recent Moon missions – the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, LCROSS, Chandrayaan-1 and Kaguya — it’s that the Moon is perplexingly different from our perceptions of the past 40 years. The discovery of water and volatiles across the surface and in the permanently shadowed regions at the poles changes so many of the notions we’ve had about Earth’s constant companion. Basically, just within the past year we’ve realized the Moon is not a dry, barren, boring place, but a wetter, richer and more interesting destination than we ever imagined. And so, the proposal for NASA to effectively turn away from any human missions to the Moon, as well as Administrator Charlie Bolden’s ‘been there, done that’ comments is quite perplexing – especially for the lunar scientists who have been making these discoveries.

“It’s been quite a year for the Moon,” said Clive Neal, a lunar geologist from Notre Dame, speaking last week at the NASA Lunar Science Institute’s annual Lunar Forum at Ames Research Center. “And things got quite depressing around February 2010.”

That’s when President Obama proposed a new budget that effectively would end the Constellation program and a return to the Moon.

At the Forum, lunar scientists shared their most recent findings – as well as their attempts to model and comprehend all the data that is not yet understood. But they saved any discussion of NASA’s future until the final presentation of the meeting.

“Hopefully this talk will stop you from running out of here ready to hang yourself or slit your wrists,” quipped Neal, who led the final session.

The week began, however, with keynote speaker Andrew Chaikin – author of the Apollo ‘bible,’ “A Man on the Moon,” and several other space-related books — saying, “We have to erase that horrendous ‘been there done that’ notion.” Chaikin also shared a famous Peanuts cartoon showing Lucy pulling the football out from under from Charlie Brown. No caption was needed for everyone to understand to what Chaikin was referring.

“With all of these new discoveries, we should have ample reason to believe that humans will follow,” said Chaikin. But right now, he added, the man in the Moon looks a little like Rodney Dangerfield. “The Moon wants – and deserves – respect.”

“It appears NASA’s focus might be shifting to Near Earth Objects,” said Neal, “but the Moon is the nearest Near Earth Object. It’s quicker, safer and cheaper to get humans there, and the important thing to recognized that there’s a lot left to explore, and a lot to do on the Moon.”

Only 5% of the Moon’s surface has been explored by humans, and Neal showed scaled maps of the Apollo landing sites overlaid on maps of Africa, Europe and the US, revealing just how small a portion of the Moon has been explored directly by humans. The map below shows the Apollo 11 crew’s movement on the Moon can fit within the size of a soccer (football) field.

Apollo 11 VS. a soccer (football) field. Credit: NASA History website. Click for larger version.

Additionally, the latest data reveal that the Apollo sites were in no way representative of the entire Moon.
In light of the proposed plan to give up on the Moon, Neal said there probably is a lot of misperceptions by the American public, as well as in other countries that there’s nothing to do or learn at the Moon. But he believes nothing could be further from the truth.

“What we’ve heard over the last couple of days are fantastic talks and seen wonderful posters in regard to the vibrancy of lunar exploration and science, and seen that exploration enables science and that science enables exploration. The Moon is a Rosetta Stone for solar system exploration and science. The recognition of a possible lunar magma ocean has resulted in terrestrial and Martian magma oceans being proposed. This could be the way terrestrial planets evolve and the Moon is begging us to go back and explore to figure that out.”

There’s also the studies of preserved impacts on the lunar surface which represents a look back in time where we can figure out how to do date planetary surfaces, test cataclysm hypotheses, and study how airless bodies undergo space weathering, which has a direct application to NEO research. Studying cold trap deposits has direct applicability to learning more about the planet Mercury, and lunar regolith contains information about the history of our Sun.

There are proposals for doing radio astronomy from the lunar farside, which will probe the dark ages of the Universe and look back to when the first stars turned on. “So the Moon is a gateway to the Universe,” Neal said. “You can do so much more with the moon — its not just the moon, it’s the solar system and beyond.”

In addition there are many unresolved scientific questions about the Moon. What are the locations and origins of shallow Moon quakes, and large lunar seismic events? How does the lunar regolith affect transmission of seismic energy? What is the nature of the lunar volatiles in the permanently shadowed regions at the lunar poles? What is the mechanism for the adsorption of water, hydroxyl and other minerals recently found on the Moon’s surface? What is nature of lunar core?

When Constellation was proposed, returning to the Moon was said to be a testbed for going on to Mars. It would be a safe and more economical way to test out systems and technology needed for going to the Red Planet. So, what has changed?

Primarily the budget. There weren’t enough funds in Constellation’s coffers to go to the Moon and then Mars. It primarily became a Moon-only program, which many said, didn’t bring us to the “real” destination that everyone really wants: Mars.

And money is still the real issue for not returning to the Moon in the new proposals of going to NEO’s and then Mars. If money weren’t an object, we’d do it all.

But the Moon offers a great local to test out human missions to Mars. “The Moon offers one-sixth of Earth’s gravity,” Neal said,” and we do not know what happens to the human body over time in that gravity, and we can only extrapolate what happens there and on Mars’ one-third gravity. We could test out life support, the growth of crops, the radiation environment and more. The ‘feed forward’ there is quite important where you can simulate a Mars mission on Moon. To develop and test your radiation shielding in the real environment on the Moon is more of a test than flying on the space station.”

Both Neal and Chaikin said they could go on and on about the benefits of returning to the Moon, and they also book-ended the Lunar Forum by saying it is up to the lunar scientists and Moon enthusiasts to educate the public, other scientists and even NASA about the importance of the Moon.

“We have to do a better job of educating the public – even dealing with the conspiracy theorists,” Neal said. “We need to get into schools and educate about what NASA has done, and what they are doing now. We all take responsibility for that.”

“The Moon is not going to get the respect it deserves unless people are out there talking about it,” said Chaikin.

28 Replies to “Is the Moon Really a ‘Been There Done That’ World?”

  1. Well personally I would disagree with the Moon as a testbed for Mars, they are very different places, I don’t need to go into detail, you all know what each has and has not.

    But I would agree that we need to do more on the Moon and not for the sake of Mars(and I do love Mars) or anything else but for the sake of the Moon. It a place that taunts us most nights overhead, that each of us looked at the first time we used a telescope, that still gives us the shivers when we explore it from our back gardens, that we had the tech to get to and explore and now we don’t bother and cant go.

    There are most definitely wonders to be discovered on the Moon and I hope we get back there soon to uncover them.

  2. Adding a non-scientiic argument, being almost 40 years old and born in 1972, I can say that generation X, Y and Z (everyone 50 an other basically, have NOT “been there done that.” In fact, we haven’t really BEEN anywhere.

  3. I would love to see a robot with web cam at the Apollo sites to see how all those years have affected the equipment. The materials used on Apollo is known so we could see what effect it had on the hardware.

  4. It makes no sense at all to bypass the moon when planning for the future, in fact I would argue it is a reckless act to ignore the moon. No doubt if you dig, you’ll find many ticks involved in this, politicks.

    We need rovers, on the moon. We need more sats to begin orbiting the moon to scan numerous freq ranges and even craft entering some of the craters.

    Sounds like a whitewash job to me, let’s not talk about how we know so little about the depths of our oceans, let’s just call the moon a has been and move forward with our ambitious rhetoric of going to mars. Both of these locations are prime for not only learning more about the respective area, it also works as a test bed for future missions. How is this lost and not a forefront idea in planning?

  5. The reality is we’ll never colonize mars with our present level of technology. Sure we can visit, take a few samples, and plant a flag, but we cant stay indefinitely.
    We wont be living there.

    The technology we have, the stuff that would make a mars visit even possible, is all based on lunar missions that happened almost a half century ago.
    The moon is a great place to grow our sea legs while we work on ideas for deep space propulsion. We can learn to work in space, learn to use the resources, and learn how to deal with simply living off world. Its a great place to start working the technology needed for periodic asteroid visits or mars missions.
    Its the kind of place you could build a permanent colony or explore with commercial hardware.

    There is alot of good work we can still do there.

  6. All this talk about going back to the Moon is all well and good, but is there really any financial incentive in doing so? When I plan for a costly venture, I weigh out the risks with the potential rewards. Bottom line, if there is no profit to be had, why waste good taxpayer dollars? Sure exploration is nice, but my pocketbook isn’t so rosy, and I think further exploration should be underpinned with real rewards – not just super expensive, poor bank-for-buck technological development.

    Isn’t there some way to have one’s cake and eat it too?

  7. Most of anything that can be done on the moon can be done robotically. If we deploy complex systems on the moon there might be a need for intermittent astronaut visits to facilitate robotic systems. We could place radio telescopes, cosmic ray particle physics facilities and so forth there. Yet largely these systems should be run robotically. As for the study of the moon itself that could be done almost entirely be telepresent robots, and the much shorter time delay with radio contact would make the exploration process much faster.

    As for Mars, I am quite opposed to the massive investment required for astronaut exploration there. This will rob other scientific research areas. Further, if we are to search for life on Mars, or evidence of past life or pre-biotic chemistry, sending two legged bacterial ecosystems (humans) to Mars would introduce noise into the data.


  8. Uncle Fred. A moon program creates massive amounts of jobs and you gain tons of patents designing the spacecrafts. Science is the best used tax dollars you can have.

    I would launch a fleet of Moon rovers to the moon by now.

  9. The fact that we can use robots more effectively on the moon than on mars is a bonus to human exploration. Because we wouldn’t just be there to explore “the moon”, but also to explore the technologies and practices for going to other destinations.
    A robot on the moon can work in close support to human operations far more effectively than it ever could on mars. It would also be within reach of a human repair crew if something goes wrong, which would help us design better probes.

    I think that in the end we want to do alot more than simply taking samples and writing up weather reports on other worlds.
    The moon is a viable near term goal. We know what it takes to get there and with that in mind we can focus on how to explore it for a reasonable price.

  10. We have to erase that horrendous ‘Moon is a good test bed for Mars’ notion. 😮

    On the larger issue, it is amazing how the usual “robotics is cheaper” perspective gets transmuted for Moon. Sure, it makes sense to explore. By men, not so much. (But it will be a boon for space tourism eventually.)

    Finally, it is consequential that the bad judgment of making the Moon out as a typical NEO (which it isn’t, as far as gravity wells and its lander requirement goes) also transmutes exactly to “been there, done that”. _There_ we need to go to new (and typical NEOs) to understand them, their lander requirements, impactor risk management, et cetera.

    @ Maxwell:

    The reality is we’ll never colonize mars with our present level of technology. Sure we can visit, take a few samples, and plant a flag, but we cant stay indefinitely.

    Huh? As far as I understand the exact opposite is the case.

    We can’t visit with our present level of technology, because a) radiation will incapacitate and kill crew with current transit times b) we don’t know how to soft land the massive landers required.

    But when and if we do this, we currently have the technology to make controlled underground greenhouse habitats supplemented with Mars resources that will likely be indefinitely habitable. Small footprint (manned mission) MELiSSA has 70 % recycling [MELíSSA]. Large footprint (habitat) Biosphere 2 “achieved complete sufficiency in food production” and nearly so on oxygen (problems with concrete sequestering CO2) [Wikipedia].

  11. I feel we are misplacing our priorities and thus we never get anywhere! )=

    We should find something on Mars and on the Moon that is of commercial value.

    Right now, as OLAF mentioned, the best argument seems to be the projects themselves will create jobs and lead to scientific discoveries. Indeed this is a valid point, but shouldn’t be the main one in my option. This is like saying: We should dig an enormous pit in Alaska because the project will create jobs and the uncovered layers of Earth will lead to scientific discoveries. The project would never (in a sane economic environment) get off the ground because the pit itself has no reason to be excavated.

    The economic environment is different then it was in the Apollo era. Finances are tight and the Cold War is over. We need to see some real returns, we should be shooting for Moon/Mars project(s) that can pay for themselves in a specific time frame.

    Once we find a reason for returning, we should determine if the job can be done by robotics or if it requires a level of human presence. I seriously doubt we could undertake a fully automated long term resource extraction mission on Mars without some kind of human presence. Things just go wrong over time and need human help (A.K.A. movie “Moon” 2009) Here is a possible opportunity to justify the enormous expense of building a habitat. If a couple of permanent mechanics are needed then I’m sure some scientists could piggyback along for extended periods. As for explorers, well I’m sure the mechanics and scientists can pull double duty in that regard (=

    This way, we can justify the Manned undertakings, with a real and tangible goal. Perhaps space exploration with this mindset can transform our economy! Who knows?

  12. “Been there, done that” given recent lunar discoveries is not at all “perplexing”.
    The lunar science achieved through satellites, impactors and rovers proves beyond all doubt that a human presence is NOT required to collect the data.
    There are plenty of valid reasons to get out into space, not least that man’s survival will eventually depend on it. So how about putting some compelling reasons forward Mr Chaikin (et. al.) rather than logically challenged ones?

  13. I want the base to be built on the Moon. With humans and/or robots. We have built ISS above our heads so we need to build something that is further. That sounds great.

    Going to the Moon or Mars for a short period of time feels like teasing but I guess many would be excited. I want something with a potential for development.

  14. “We can’t visit with our present level of technology, because a) radiation will incapacitate and kill crew with current transit times b) we don’t know how to soft land the massive landers required.”

    The level of radiation is nothing new, its the length of exposure.
    At present its a two year commitment when you decide to go to Mars, and we’ve never kept a single crew in space for even close to that length of time. Much less at those distances.
    Can a space suit be made to last that long?
    Can a habitat on the surface be kept clean and safe?
    Can you maintain a farm or water processing in a closed system?
    Can you even efficiently dig tunnels on other worlds with the light weight equipment we can fit on a rocket?

    Its all the same questions you’d have with settling an outpost on the moon, plus more limited launch weights and years of travel time with no backup from the ground. Not even the slim hope of a rescue or recovery mission.

    Building rockets is all math and engineering. What we don’t have is in field experience. The moon is the most convenient place to get it.

  15. Necessity is the mother of invention.
    IT isn’t about the technology we have today. It is about the technology which will be found and created because we send men outside of Earth’s orbit… to the Moon, an asteroid or Mars. A lot of the technology you enjoy today is because of the space program.

    Robots when used, are very limited. They can only do a couple of things at best, and they often cannot do it to the detail man can, they require a vast amount of planning and coding. There are many moving parts both mechanically and logically which can go wrong and break down.
    If we were only going to the Moon to do a few things, then a robot would probably be fine. Behind every robot is several men operating it. This itself isn’t easy. Imagine you had a robot, and you need to send it to your favorite store to pick out some new item to buy. Could it do the job as well as you? Think of each little step required , from the moment you turn it on, until it returns with your item. You must program each of those steps… if any step is off just a bit… it likely will affect other steps, or possibly crash it.

    One of the best ideas I like about men returning to the Moon is to build radio astronomy outposts. The Earth’s atmosphere affects EM waves a great deal and really limits our ability to use this technology. This is the technology we need to see our own SMBH in the center of our galaxy, to view new stars and the birth of new solar systems.
    What minerals does the Moon contain? How has the Sun affected them over 4.5 Billion years without an atmosphere protecting it? What asteroids have survived their encounter with the Moon, and what are their composition? Is the secret to fusion or another power source waiting there for us?

    There are plenty of NEW things to do, explore and build on the Moon. To do it, we don’t need a particular rocket…we need public support and education.

  16. If “commercial value” is the only value you are interested in, then shut down most if not all of NASA, DoE, NIH, etc. Shut down arts programs too, and just about everything else. Politically, I’m conservative, but I’m not a moron (bring on the jokes.) We need government to do the things that don’t make sense for private companies. Space and technology in general is an R&D investment, we reap much more in rewards than we put in it. It’s just not on a time scale of one election cycle. It’s over decades, and sadly, nobody seems to have that sort of patience anymore in the USA.

  17. Today LEO… tomorrow the moon! Next month Mars and NEO asteroids!

    Robotics are key… and are rapidly evolving along with the computers that would be used to control them. I personally would love to telecommute to a robot on Luna to build a water reclamation/reduction plant and lunar base for human occupancy, rocket fuel, He3 mining and…

  18. My favorite fantasy is to actually fly in a pressurized lunar volcanic tube.. using strap on wings of my own design! Anybody want to race?

  19. The moon for the sake of Mars in only for the fact that it has been 40 years since we’ve done any real space travel – and there are many kinks to work out.

    Falling around the Earth doesn’t technically constitute Space travel… really.

  20. Maxwell, you note some questions on habitat building. I agree, it isn’t a done deal.

    But my point is that it is the transit that have technological problems that we don’t know how to solve. While the habitat is more straight forward development and scale of exploration, based on current technology.

    As for the field expertise, I’m claiming that Earth (habitat) + LEO (space) is a cheaper development ground.

    It makes sense, but is not altogether necessary, to check the habitats under space conditions. After all, not all of the Moon landing technology could be checked so comprehensively beforehand.

  21. Aodhhan, it is true that not all can be done with robotics. Geology and paleontology is much manned exploration today, even if probes and rovers makes inroads.

    And there are things that I would like to see done on the Moon that isn’t doable with robotics today. But we can bypass the Moon in a manned exploration program out from Earth, so it makes sense to do so. Meanwhile we can do the research on the cheap with robotics.

    Later, if we haven’t filled in all the gaps, when we colonize the Moon we can do it with personnel. And at that time the research will be both cheap (since we already live there) and massive/fast (since humans, or humans+robotics, are flexible).

    The best ROI in exploration lies in doing what is the next step beyond what was previously done and do only that. So no Moon, but NEOs, Mars, et cetera.

    “Your focus needs more focus.”

  22. Uncle Fred – You make some valid points. We do in the long run need to make a profit on space ventures. We do need to develop better technology. However, in the long run we as a species would also like to survive. Having all human civilization confined to just one planet could very well become infinitely unprofitable. To keep putting things off until we have better technology is short sighted. Learn while doing. Risk averse? Do nothing + make no mistakes?

  23. The upcoming GRAIL mission to gravity map the moon is another great example of how new Luna data will be collected with unprecedented detail and all done via satellite. An equivalent human mission to the Luna surface to achieve the same data collection would be more expensive, take far longer, entail greater risks etc.
    Whatever reasons one might contrive for sending humans back to the moon, Luna science doesn’t seem to be one them.

  24. Whether manned or robotic, I want to see exploration on the surface of Luna within 5 years. A rover similar to the ones on Mars, maybe with a few extra instrument packages, seems like it could get there on this timescale since most all of the technology is already developed.

    We learned a lot from Apollo, but we barely scratched the surface. Today’s article about what we are doing to try to understand the water cycle on the moon demonstrates the value of new ground-based data from Luna.

    However, NASA is not necessarily needed for this. China, Japan, ESA, and others are all building space programs right now, and will undoubtedly need to work out their technologies. Let’s collaborate with them on returning to the moon while NASA stays one step ahead by going for NEO or Mars.

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