Why We Need To Return To The Moon

The original Moon landing was seen as a publicity stunt during the Cold War by politicians and voters. But that doesn’t mean the future of space exploration is more publicity stunts.
SOM, MIT, and ESA’s concept of an international lunar base

SOM, MIT, and ESA’s concept of an international lunar base

When you talk about sending astronauts back to the Moon, one of the most common refrains from politicians and the public is “Why? Been there, done that, let’s go to Mars!” In their minds, space exploration is a series of triumphant contests to see who can get to what new world first, plant a flag, and say something profound and inspirational before they change the channel. In reality, however, going to Mars is several orders of magnitude harder and selling it as the next logical place to go tends to underplay just how hard it is to cover the distance between the two planets.

Mars is some 143 times farther away than the Moon, and the way there, as well as its surface, is awash in lethal radiation. We can, of course, protect astronauts from its worst effects, but the longer they’re exposed, the more damage their bodies build up and the more likely they are to get sick during the mission. A little over a week of charged subatomic particles bombarding their bodies will become two to three years. Even with groundbreaking propulsion technologies like plasma rockets, we’re still looking at months of exposure.

Likewise, lower gravity will eat away at their bones, muscles, and cardiovascular systems, and while we know how to manage that in orbit around Earth, we’re not sure how well the same kind of techniques will help astronauts overcome these problems on another world. Add to this the many logistical problems of surviving for extended periods of time in a hostile alien wilderness, and you can see the kind of challenge space agencies would be facing if they actually sent a team of humans to the red planet. But luckily for them and us, we have the Moon.

You see, the Moon isn’t just a natural satellite which helps stabilize Earth’s spin around its axis over hundreds of millions of years and helps churn nutrient-rich oceans and support life. It’s an entire world in its own right close enough for an evacuation in the event of a medical emergency or a technical disaster, and quick, efficient communication, but far enough to require the kind of technology that would enable us to live completely cut off from civilization as we know it. In other words, it’s an ideal and extremely useful proving ground for any mission beyond our cozy little corner of the solar system. If we want to go to Mars, we have to return to the Moon first.

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Just consider for a moment that we have yet to demonstrate the ability to support astronauts surviving on another world for more than a few days. If they spend six months getting to Mars, we’re not going to want them to simply hop around for a few hours, get back in the lander, then spend another six months traveling home. It would be a huge waste of money and resources. They’ll need to settle in for at least a few months to do as much work as possible, then wait for the orbits to align again to return to Earth as quickly and efficiently as possible.

Plasma rockets could make this a much less important aspect of mission planning, but we’re still looking at a month on the red planet at the very least. How will the habitat be constructed? How will it be stocked? How well will it shield the crew from radiation? What kind of damage could it take and still support their mission? And most importantly, do we want to find out how all this will work on Mars, with our fingers crossed and hoping really hard we didn’t overlook a minor but at the same time critical detail?

Maybe we’d want to test it in the most Mars-like environment within reach other than Devon Island and the Atacama Desert, which both still have an atmosphere, soil with moisture, and heavy protection from cosmic radiation? If we can build and sustain a habitat on the Moon, we can confidently deploy it on Mars, or any other world for that matter, nailing down practices to support humans long term on the moons of gas giants and even planets around alien stars in the far, far future. Just like we’re standardizing and reusing rockets, we can standardize and optimize extraterrestrial habitats for ourselves while maybe even utilizing similar technology on Earth to tackle housing shortages in urban environments.

Plus, the low lunar gravity means we can launch six times the payload with existing technology, assembling numerous mission critical components inside sprawling bases and turning the Moon into a gateway to deep space exploration. No matter how powerful we can make our rockets in the coming decades and centuries, the laws of physics will always mean that a lunar launch will give us six times more bang for our buck, the same laws which state that anything you want to send into space will require explosive rocketry. (Space elevators would be a loophole here, but we’re not sure it’s possible to build and maintain a 35,786 kilometer tall structure yet.)

Yes, none of this will be as glamorous as a shot of an astronaut taking his or her first steps on a new planet, proudly waving a flag. It will be grinding work with lots of trial and error, exciting to the engineers and scientists who have to build and test it in labs and on the lunar surface while much of the public groans with boredom. But space exploration isn’t about making headlines and rushing towards firsts. It’s about building an infrastructure to extend our civilization into space, create jobs and new trajectories for our societies, and give us the tools to prevent and survive disasters that would normally doom millions.

During the early days of the space race, the Soviet Union focused on firsts and public relations while NASA grit its teeth and working on developing the capability to send humans to the Moon, step by step. By 1969, the USSR watched its N1 rocket detonate with the force of a small nuke just meters over its launchpad and never made it past low Earth orbit while NASA celebrated a successful lunar landing and readied its next mission. When it comes to space, determination and persistence, not flashy stunts for the sake of flashy stunts is what works. Missions to the Moon proved that principle very clearly. And Mars will be no different in this regard.

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Politech // Exploration / Science / Space