Return to the Moon

Posted By Pamela on Oct 30, 2007 | 13 comments

The last time man walked on the moon I wasn’t alive.

Hopefully I won’t be able to say that for too much longer. Several different nations are gearing up to make manned assaults on the surface of the Moon.

Before the people, there is a wave of explorer bots. (The good kind, not the bad spam bots like I regularly war upon.) On September 14, 2007  Japan launched the SELENE mission, which is an imaging mission. On October 24, 2007 the Chinese launched the Chang’e-1 lunar orbiter mission. And in April, India will follow up with its own mission.

The next phase, human landings, may begin in 2012 with a Russian manned mission and a NASA manned mission is planned for no later than 2020.

I have to admit, I’ll believe it when I see it, but…

But it’s a start. I’ve been giving talks on astronomy and the space program since 1988, and since 1988 I’ve been very depressingly standing in front of audiences consistently explaining that, well, NASA no longer has the ability to  put people on the moon.  I’ve explained that we can get men up to about 340 km above the surface of the Earth, but the moon is, well, roughly 360,000 km above the surface of the Earth.

That’s a factor of 1000x farther than we have the technology to get to right now.

Now, every single time I’ve given a talk and made that point someone (usually someone older than my father ) has asked,”How is it that Apollo could get there when I was a kid, but now we can’t there?” The tone of voice has variably implied I’m crazy, that I’m lying, or that I’m just mis-informed. But, well, as crazy it may sound, really, if we wanted go to the moon next year, NASA couldn’t do it.

Here’s how to think about it. I have a degree in astronomy and have taken classes on programming, electronics, and all sorts of other useful stuff.  In theory, I have the skills and intellect necessary to  write a space craft’s graphical user interface (in theory, but right now I could only do it in XView). Given enough time, I’m fairly certain I could do it, but there would be false starts, moments of mental brain freeze, and time spent redoing things that I realize could be done better (and this definitely isn’t something one programmer should try and do on their own!)

NASA has the skills and the ability to build the technology necessary to get someone to the moon, but just as my XView skills could get the job done in an antiquated way, their Apollo experience would get the job done in an antiquated way – and the parts may not even be available! If I were asked to write a useful GUI, I’d need to learn new skills – new languages and libraries – and NASA also will need to develope new technologies that take advantage of today’s processors and controllers. I won’t learn new GUI-writing skills unless someone pays me to do it (I just don’t have the time to learn somethings without financial incentives) and NASA can’t spend time developing manned missions to the Moon unless someone throws money at them. So – in theory I could write a GUI, but I never will – I have classes and podcasts and variable stars to attend to. But NASA… Well…

For about 20 years, I stood before audiences and  explained NASA doesn’t have the money to develop plans to go to the Moon, and no one else has plans to do it either.

But suddenly, NASA has a mandate (although probably not enough money) to get people to the moon by 2020, and other nations are trying to get there too. It has started with the Japanese and Chinese launches.

The race is on. Maybe, before those men my father’s age stop filling my audiences, I’ll be able to give a talk on how humans went to the moon in my lifetime.


2020 is 54 years after the first moon landing. How many lives will never have seen man walk on the moon…


  1. We can only hope, but there are some very serious challenges ahead.. The future of the program will depend on how the geopoltiical situation in the world unfolds in the next 5 years.

  2. While I love the idea of manned space flight, I frankly just don’t see the point anymore. The whole point of sending humans into space was that we would have this continually expanding frontier, first orbit, then the moon, planets, space colonies, and eventually, Star Trek. At least that was the unspoken expectation.

    But we found out it was actually a lot more expensive and difficult than we thought, and there was no real reason to do it. We just didn’t need the extra living room, the commercial incentives aren’t there, and advances in miniturization allow us to do good science at much less cost. Sadly, I think the human race is pretty much bound to this little globe forever.

  3. I supose once resource are found and easly minable on other planets. And rare on earth there will be more incentives from big corperations.

  4. Seeing a man on the moon was an inspiration to a generation of young people. In a time of enormous political turmoil, this was a bright spot for many of us at that time. Perhaps it’s more symbolic than scientifically relevant now, but a woman or a man on the moon now would be a great thing for all of us. (Maybe it would even quiet the “non-believers” who feel it was all a hoax.) We may in the end be relegated to this planet, but I think one of the great hopes for human kind is the concept that we might be able to someday find another world and not make the same mistakes as we’ve made here. Kind of like a ‘do over’.

  5. The Shuttle is to Apollo like a pickup truck is to an old Pontaic Trans Am; one vehicle is for hauling things, the other was for just haulin’.

    Going to the Moon is not enough. Doing something with the Moon is needed, not just going there. A telescope would be nice.

  6. >The last time man walked on the moon I wasn’t alive.

    I keep forgetting how wonderfully young you are…and how amazing old I am. 🙂

    As for the rest of this, you’ve read my numerous LJs on the subject. For good or for bad the greatness of nations and civilizations have been made in expansion. When civilizations stop expanding they die. Ask the Romans. Ask Britain.

    Now expansion means the Moon. It means Mars. It means exploiting those resources. We desperately need a challenge that inspires us and forces us to look outward. What we have been given now is a future of building walls around ourselves – both real and virtual – against mainly imagined fears.

    The Romans built Hadran’s Wall. Where are they now? The Soviet Union built the Warsaw Pact buffer states? Where are the Soviets today.

    History gives us a clear answer. Now we need to hope our leaders can learn from history.

    I won’t hold my breath.

  7. I remember getting up to see man walk on the moon when I was 14, plus I grew up in Huntsville, Alabama because of the moon-landing project. My father worked for Boeing and we moved there in 1964 so he could work on the computer simulations.

    Given the immense impact this project had on my life personally, it seems strange to imagine a whole generation of people growing up without witnessing such an event, but to tell the truth when Apollo 8 orbited the moon for the first time and sent back the first pictures of the earth from outer space, that was even more amazing.

    I am not sure that kids who have grown up on Star Wars and all the special effects and ubiquitous video could get the same thrill as we did back then. Reality might be something of a let-down.

  8. From my short lived 19 years of experience it is pretty hard for me, personally, to predict fantastic things for the space exploration both by humans and by scientific tools. Watching things of such an utter importance to our species being pushed aside time and time again is ruining what little confidence I had in the powers at be. I understand the need to be a little bit more level headed in the global political arena, but can they really deny the possibility? Whether it be expanding our glorious empire into the stars or just raping the universe of its most treasured resources, I don’t understand how anyone can turn their back on this kind of science. One can only hope the free-market system kicks in and privately funded expeditions into space becomes the new way of doing things on a much bigger scale.

    I would die with a smile on my face knowing that someone, somewhere demanded to know the location of my rebel base.

  9. Apollo 11 landed on the Moon on 20 July 1969. I remember getting up to see the grainy black-and-white TV images of Neil Armstrong taking the first steps out of the lander… But my arithmetic tells me that 2020 is 51 years after 1969, not 54 years.

    More to the point, it’s really rather shocking when you put it that way: half a century later, we return.

    And I really can’t imagine any corporation investing the necessary billions of dollars to get back a box of rocks. Scientific value – sure, but commercial value? Get real.


  10. Return to the moon may prove valuable in the future. In a planet with rapidly diminishing resources, the helium-3 located on the moon could provide Earth with a much needed clean-burning energy source. And with business going “green”, I believe there’s a market for clean-burning fuel that could power, literally, the entire world.

    If something catastrophic happens that no one expects, such as the overharvesting of oil that lubricates the tectonic plates resulting in massive volcanic activity, or a slew of other impending disasters, the commercial value of things may be a bit less important.

    The list of reasons to return to the moon is actually quite long:

    1.) Mine cleaner, greener fuel.
    2.) Develop new technology, advancing state-of-the-art
    3.) Engage the spirit of international cooperation.
    4.) An so on…

  11. Shocking to me is not just that it is 50 years later BUT that we are still doing it as individual nations, that is dumb.

  12. Shri,

    Pamela said 2020 will be 54 years after the first moon landing (by the Russians in 1966), not the first *manned* moon landing.

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