Favorable Signs for a Lunar Return

The Moon may once again play a significant role in the U.S. space program.

An artistic rendition of the Lunar Prospector rover, exploring the lunar surface in the polar regions. (NASA)
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Pointing out that morale in the lunar community has been low over the past few years isn’t news. Since the decision was made to terminate the lunar portion of the Vision for Space Exploration (VSE) in 2010, proponents of a sustainable, incremental space faring program have been living on faint yet still detectible fumes of hope for an eventual return to a sane and a sound space program—one that takes advantage of what the Moon offers. The general mood of lunar scientists and engineers at the recent meeting of the Lunar Exploration Analysis Group (LEAG) seemed different from what had become more of a yearly crepe hanging exercise. Like ancient Romans watching the portentous appearance of a comet in the skies, there was an undercurrent of feeling that perhaps our fortunes might be improving.

The LEAG meeting consisted of the usual spate of presentations on mission concepts, proposed measurements of unknown quantities, new spacecraft and concepts for private ventures to the Moon, and the usual NASA Headquarters updates. However, two things were different. The Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate of NASA issued a Request for Information (RFI) on possible payloads to be flown to the Moon on commercial spacecraft, including those involved in the Google Lunar X-Prize. Although money is not yet involved in this announcement, the issuance of an RFI portends possible future funding if the proposed instrument payloads address critical NASA needs. In conjunction with this announcement, Moon Express Inc. announced a program to provide matching funds for instrument concepts for their lunar landers. (Disclosure: I am affiliated with Moon Express, advising them on science goals and implementations).

These new developments suggest we may be getting new data on important and unknown aspects of the Moon, especially in terms of knowledge of polar volatiles (water and light elements such as hydrogen, nitrogen and carbon). A report from the Special Action Team on Strategic Knowledge Gaps (SKG) indicated which properties of the poles and their deposits were most critical to study. The lunar science community has been thinking for some time about gathering new measurements of the polar volatiles—how to obtain the data, and innovative techniques for polar exploration. These ideas had been stalled due to a lack of flight opportunities, but with a Korean lunar orbiter planned within the next few years and now, possible commercial lunar landers, we can begin devising low-mass and low-power instruments and experiments to address the lunar polar SKGs.

We know that water exists in the polar regions of the Moon but we don’t know how much is there or its physical state (dense, hard ice or fluffy, fairy-castle aggregates?), or what processes are involved in its deposition and retention. The proposed Lunar Prospector rover mission (currently scheduled to fly in 2020) will land in one sunlit spot and conduct a single traverse into a cold trap (i.e., a dark region near the pole). To keep costs down, this mission is deliberately designed to last only a few days. Yet, to fully understand the ice deposits and their environment, we need a long-lived rover equipped with a nuclear power supply and instruments. Such a mission could rove the polar regions for many months, measuring the physical and compositional properties of the deposits, and mapping out the most promising locations and their position with respect to the areas of near-permanent sunlight that exist near the poles. Other, less ambitious innovative orbital and landed experiments could also reduce the number and magnitude of the SKGs to manageable proportions.

In another very encouraging development, Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-Oklahoma) of the House Subcommittee on Space addressed the LEAG attendees and discussed his inspiring vision for future human space exploration and utilization of the Moon. In brief, Congressman Bridenstine’s vision is very much in tune with the uses of the Moon envisaged in the former Vision for Space Exploration (VSE)—a steady, cumulative progression of human and robotic presence beyond low Earth orbit, including the use of the material and energy resources of the Moon. The rationale for a directed lunar push lies in the development of cislunar space for a wide variety of practical purposes, such as large distributed space systems and space solar power generation for Earth. In a refreshingly honest departure from the usual kumbaya preached by many politicians, the Congressman carefully outlined the developing capabilities and potential challenges of uncontested Chinese activities in cislunar space. His candid view is that such presence compels an American response and presence on the cislunar frontier.

By way of full disclosure, some of Congressman Bridenstine’s arguments are also explained in my recent book, The Value of the Moon. At the beginning of his talk, the Congressman acknowledged my book and Moonrush, written by my colleague and friend Dennis Wingo, as being both crucial to his understanding and in line with his thinking about the important role of the Moon and cislunar development moving forward. So it won’t surprise anyone to learn that I thoroughly enjoyed Jim Bridenstine’s fine talk. But more than that, his thoughts and message also encouraged the meeting attendees, a community that has had little to celebrate during the past seven years. The lunar community now has an ally in Congress, one who supports and understands the rationale and importance for a logical, cumulative progression into space, through the exploration and use of the Moon.

The space policy developments at the LEAG meeting were followed by an unexpected and surprising national development—the election of a new President whose policy advisors apparently see the value of incorporating the Moon into the realm of space operations.  In additon, the transition team reportedly is considering Bridenstine as a candidate for the next NASA Administrator. The perceptible, though cautious, optimism at LEAG suggests we are moving out of and away from the slough of despond into which we’d been cast these last few years. Changes will certainly occur in the coming months, but my sense is that our time in the wilderness of space policy might be drawing to a close and that the dawn and promise of true space faring is nigh.

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About Paul D. Spudis
Paul D. Spudis

Paul D. Spudis is a senior staff scientist at the Lunar and Planetary Institute in Houston, Texas. His website can be found at www.spudislunarresources.com. The opinions expressed here are his own and do not reflect the views of the Smithsonian Institution or his employer.

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