Back to the Moon


Focus-Science and Technology - - Contents - WORDS: Dr Stu­art Clark

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.


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.”


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

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