Why We Go to the Moon

It starts with a mission statement.

The United States won’t be going to the Moon alone. This European Space Agency artist’s conception shows a future lunar outpost built using 3-D printing techniques. (ESA)
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I was engaged in two workshop-conferences last week in Columbia, Maryland. The first was the annual meeting of the Lunar Exploration and Analysis Group (LEAG)—a group of lunar scientists and engineers who came to share ideas about new missions, measurements and exploration. The second workshop specifically focused on a return to the Moon—what architectural approaches, equipment and organization are needed to accomplish this feat. In a manner similar to our previous attempts at lunar return, I kept hearing a distinctive low buzz at these meetings: Why are we going to the Moon? What’s the mission?

These same questions were asked in 2004 after the Moon was announced as a destination, and planning for the Vision for Space Exploration (VSE) commenced. I’ve since memorized the stitches on this fastball, so it doesn’t surprise me at all when I hear them raised now. Similar ignorance was proffered then, deflecting us away from the lunar goal, even though President George W. Bush specifically outlined reasons why in his speech calling for lunar return. Ideally, the time for clarity is at the beginning of a mission, because how you go depends on what you are trying to accomplish—understanding the architectural implications of what pieces are needed and how they should operate together is the first order of business.

In brief, the mission of the VSE was that we were going to the Moon to learn, to work, and to prepare for more ambitious voyages deeper into space. As part of this effort, the President specifically mentioned that the surface of the Moon contains resources that could be harvested and that would enable greater exploration. This announcement came in 2004 when the idea of ice at the poles of the Moon was still being widely disparaged. Two years later, President Bush’s Science Advisor John Marburger outlined the most cogent, articulate rationale for a national space program that I’ve ever heard. His clarion words were pure gold, and now, with additional information about these lunar resources, they hold even more potency. Notable in Marberger’s speech was this pointed statement about our national space policy: As I see it, questions about the Vision boil down to whether we want to incorporate the Solar System in our economic sphere, or not.

For more than two decades—ever since the announcement of ice possibly hidden within the dark regions of the lunar poles—the Moon has been visited by a variety of robotic explorers from many interested nations. Multiple measurements taken by instruments flown on these missions confirm ice at the poles. Simultaneously, the search for “peaks of eternal light,” has identified numerous places near the Moon’s poles that are illuminated for more than 80 percent (in some cases, more than 90 percent) of the 14-day/night lunar cycle. These areas not only permit the generation of constant electrical power, they also offer a benign thermal environment for facilities and habitats of the outpost. Although we now know that water ice occurs near the poles, we still need detailed information on its physical properties, the nature of the terrain around the largest ice deposits, and how its concentration varies on meter-scales.

Spudis Kaguya south pole sunlight.jpg
Sunlight is a critical resource at the Moon’s poles. The arrow in this Kaguya satellite view of the rugged south polar region points to one of the peaks of “eternal” light, which is illuminated for more than 80 percent of the lunar day. (JAXA/NHK)

The discovery of both quasi-permanent sunlight and significant water deposits in proximity at the poles confirms that the Moon is habitable on a sustainable basis. We know that the Moon contains the material and energy resources needed to create new spaceflight capabilities—specifically, that polar water can be harvested using the energy provided by the permanent sunlight to make rocket propellant and life-support consumables. These commodities are high in mass but low in complexity, and their provision from the shallow gravity well of the Moon (rather than deep gravity well of Earth) helps us break the “tyranny of the rocket equation.” The significance of a place only 400,000 km away from Earth—one that is ideal for learning how to live and work sustainably off-planet—is probably the most profound discovery about the Moon in the last 100 years.

A mission statement is vital for people to succinctly understand and fully comprehend the reasons for returning to the Moon. Ideally, a mission statement is a simple, declarative sentence, one that permits no ambiguity about intentions or execution. There is much truth in the belief that if you can’t sum up your mission in just a few words, you probably don’t understand it yourself. One’s mission statement must encompass both anticipated activities and imply the value of its accomplishment.

In 2006, more than two years after President Bush announced the Vision and lunar return, and despite John Marberger’s speech clearly stating a rationale for lunar return, NASA used its bureaucratic process to collect a gathering of a few hundred people, then assembled them in Washington D.C. for three days and charged them to come up with a detailed rationale for lunar return. The assembled multitude produced a spreadsheet with hundreds of activities, actions, measurements and aspirations, along with a poster listing six reasons for lunar return.  The rationale for lunar return had become so diffuse and unclear that NASA needed a wall chart to remind them why they were doing what they were (allegedly) trying to do. Even rocket science doesn’t have to be this hard.

First we must consider the activities encompassed by a human return to the Moon, beginning with a transportation system that permits access to and from the Moon for people and cargo. Once on the Moon, we must protect ourselves from the hostile environment with such a degree of utility and comfort as to permit the performance of useful work. This protection includes life support, shielding from radiation, habitation, mobility, maintenance and continuous, daily operations. Finally, we must identify a series of activities that yield long-term societal value and contribute to the enhancement and furtherance of our spacefaring capabilities. I suggest that all of these activities are summarized in the following mission statement:

We go to the Moon to learn how to live and work productively on another world.

It is not enough to simply get there—once on the Moon, we must accomplish some significant goals. It is not enough to simply live on the Moon—we must learn the skills and acquire the technologies necessary to support human life indefinitely, making use of local resources to support this effort. And we do not go simply to say that we’ve gone—we go to create new technologies, make new discoveries, and create new wealth and new capabilities in space access and flight. To put it succinctly, our overarching goals are to arrive, to survive and to thrive.

If you compare this relatively simple mission statement with the previous NASA efforts to define the entire scope of activities that could be undertaken at a lunar outpost, you will find that all such activities fall under one of the three categories of arrive, survive and thrive. This mission statement is easy to understand and easy to memorize; it does not require detailed elaboration, but is a useful springboard when the occasion arises.

Will NASA adopt this clear mission statement? One can only hope. The more clearly and succinctly we understand our mission, the less likely it will drift away as we encounter the inevitable slings and arrows of outrageous fortune that any long-term project experiences. The KISS principle (Keep It Simple, Stupid) applies here, as it inevitably does in most fields of human endeavor.

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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