Back to the Moon
WHY WE NEED TO GO
A human last set foot on the Moon in December 1972. Five scientists explain why it would be a good idea to go back there soon.
n 14 December 1972, Gene Cernan stood at the foot of the lunar landing module and said, “…I take man’s last step from the surface, back home for some time to come – but we believe not too long into the future”. He was the 12th person to walk on the Moon, and clearly anticipated a fairly prompt return. That was not to be, as ambitions – if not funding – turned towards Mars. No one has walked on the Moon since.
Now the tide is turning. After years of interest in the Red Planet, the scientific and astronautical community is uniting behind a push to return to the Moon, both to continue the research that was started by the Apollo missions and to prepare for future exploration.
We spoke to five leading voices from the worlds of astronomy, philosophy, science and technology to understand why we have to go back.
THE LAST MOONWALKER, GENE CERNAN, DIED AGED 82 ON 16 JANUARY THIS YEAR, SERVING AS A STARK REMINDER THAT AN AWFUL LOT OF TIME HAS PASSED SINCE A HUMAN LAST STOOD ON THE MOON
PROF LEWIS DARTNELL Astrobiologist, University of Leicester, UK
“The only astrobiological reason that you might want to go to the Moon is that it perhaps preserves ancient rocks from the Earth that have been splashed up by big asteroid strikes. And here I would want to tip my hat to Ian Crawford, University of London, for these ideas.
The Earth is an active and dynamic place. That’s important in the emergence of life and its long-term evolution over billions of years. Yet the planet’s dynamism poses a problem when you are trying to find the earliest traces of life on Earth, because most of the planet’s crust has been destroyed by plate tectonics [the shifting and recycling of the Earth’s surface rocks].
The Moon, on the other hand, is a stable, static and even boring place in the sense of active processes. If there were a way to get ancient rocks from Earth up onto the Moon, they would stick around for a long time, as they wouldn’t be eroded or destroyed by plate tectonics. This is where asteroid strikes come in. If chips of the Earth got blown off our planet and up into space, the Moon would sweep up that material and preserve it.
So it stands to reason that there are probably ancient Earth rocks on the Moon that could contain microfossils or chemical fossils that [would tell us about the origin of life on Earth].
The problem is that it is going to be quite hard to find these flecks of Earth. You might start looking for hydrated minerals, which are ubiquitous on Earth but very rare on the Moon.
Any material splashed up would be distributed randomly across the Moon but you could look for places where the material has been preserved.
The main problem of preserving bio-signatures in space is the cosmic radiation. These highenergy particles travel at close to the speed of light, and are destructive when they hit cells of organic molecules. So we might want to target ancient lava flows on the Moon that may have covered up any Earth rocks that were lying on the surface at the time, and are now protecting them beneath several metres of rock.
There would be the issue of mapping to identify and date the lava flows, and then sending a mission to drill on a lava flow of the correct age.
It would be hard work. It would be like looking for a needle in a haystack without the use of a magnet. On the other hand, the pay- off would be enormous. You would be finding Earth rock that is far older than anything found on our planet. So there is a lot to gain from doing this.”
“THERE ARE PROBABLY ANCIENT EARTH ROCKS ON THE MOON THAT COULD CONTAIN MICROFOSSILS OR CHEMICAL FOSSILS”
NAVEEN JAIN Co- founder and chairman, Moon Express
“If I were to paraphrase John F Kennedy, ‘We choose to go to the Moon, not because it is easy but because it is great business’.
When Moon Express lands on the Moon, we will become the first private company to do so. But more importantly, we become the fourth superpower to do so. That is quite symbolic of things to come. To me, the next set of superpowers are likely to be entrepreneurs, not nation states.
The time is now right to use technology to solve the grand challenges facing humanity. I argue that landing on the Moon could potentially bring world peace. We fight over land, water and energy, yet all we have to do is look up into space and there is an abundance of these things.
It is only a matter of time before we get hit by a massive asteroid. If we live only on Earth, then humans are going to become extinct like the dinosaurs. Wouldn’t you prefer to have some entrepreneur creating an underlying infrastructure so that we can really become a multi-planet society?
What we will be doing is creating the underlying infrastructure of space. We think of ourselves as the iPhone of space. Nine-and-a-half years ago, Steve Jobs launched the iPhone and the App Store. Obviously he had a seriously good idea of what people could do with the device but no one imagined that the number one thing that people would use their iPhone for was to throw birds at pigs [the Angry Birds game]. But that’s exactly what people did and it took seven years until something else captured the imagination of humanity and that was Pokémon Go.
Now that we have created this iPhone of the Moon with Moon Express, we have to ask ourselves what is going to be the Pokémon Go. Will that be something that Moon Express will create, or is that something that we will allow other entrepreneurs to do? It could be bringing stuff down to Earth, or using stuff to create habitats on the Moon.
My gut reaction is bringing the lunar rocks to Earth could be the most beneficial task initially. We could disrupt the diamond industry. Diamonds were never the symbol of love and romance until the 1950s. De Beers created a brilliant campaign to sell that idea. If you are an entrepreneur against a monopoly you don’t fight them, you change the game. So, we bring back the Moon rock and we change the paradigm: it’s not enough to give her a diamond, if you love her enough you give her the Moon.”
Astronaut Charles Duke takes a stroll next to the Moon’s Plum Crater