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…