Are We Returning to the Moon? Or has that (space) ship sailed?
By Alan Jacobson
Forty-six years ago, Apollo 17 lifted off from the lunar surface along with a couple hundred pounds of rock and a knowledge base of information NASA had spent over a dozen years cultivating. It was an extraordinary achievement for humankind, and specifically the United States—which had been locked in a Cold War space race with the Soviet Union.
At the time we were leaving our last footprints in the lunar soil, NASA’s planned Apollo 18, 19, and 20 missions were in doubt. And as Earth-based needs surged, the prospect of spending six hundred million dollars ($3.5 trillion today) going back to a place we’d already visited six times was a hard sell to Congress—and the American people, who had grown bored with the Moon landings.
With the cancellation of the remaining Apollo missions, the US space program imploded into itself: focus turned to low-Earth orbit endeavors like Skylab and development of the Space Shuttle, and robotic probes to Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, and the solar system. All were important—but none carried the allure of landing on another planetary-type body and exploring its hidden mysteries.
While researching and writing “Dark Side of the Moon” (the fourth book in my covert ops OPSIG Team Black series), I had the opportunity to work closely with rocket scientists and engineers at NASA, SpaceX, Aerojet Rocketdyne, and Lockheed-Martin, as well as planetary scientists, nuclear physicists, lunar geologists, Space Shuttle astronauts, and robotics professors at Carnegie Mellon. The plot of “Dark Side of the Moon” involves a special forces mission to the Moon necessitated by something that occurred during Apollo 17. My characters don’t live in a science fiction universe and I’m not a rocket scientist, so diving into this entirely new topic with two feet was necessary—and an education all its own.
Part of what I learned was that in the wake of a retired space shuttle program, small-scale, targeted robotic missions to Mars, and involvement in the multi-country International Space Station, NASA spent years engineering a powerful new rocket and spacecraft to replace the ancient Saturn V and Apollo vehicles. Dubbed the Space Launch System, it’s a revamp of what started out as the Constellation program—which President Obama canceled because he believed our resources were better spent on Earth. Meanwhile, our space program shrunk and atrophied while China, Russia, and the EU began pumping theirs full of steroids. As a result, the US arguably lost its qualitative (and quantitative) edge. China sent research ships and “soft landers” to the Moon (hard landers are deliberately smashed into the surface after conducting orbit-based research) and Russia began plotting manned missions to the lunar surface—with designs on establishing a Moon base.
But the very recent discovery of the building blocks of life on Mars brought to the forefront, once again, the question of whether or not the US should, or would, return to the lunar surface—or if those financial and engineering resources were better spent on journeying to the Red Planet.
So what if the US misses out on this Sino-Russian wave of lunar exploration? To understand the impact this would have, it’s important to realize that its significance extends beyond curiosity and the innate human need to explore. While the Apollo program resulted in its space-related technology being applied to Earth-based life, the converse is happening relative to our present-day space program. The technologies developed on Earth have greatly simplified exploratory endeavors: autonomous robotic vehicles enable longer term daily (or even round-the-clock) missions to map, sample, and discover. More significantly, 3D printing allows us to use the raw materials found on the Moon to build structures necessary for living as we construct a base. This greatly lowers the cost of doing so from astronomical (i.e., impossible) to very affordable, even for smaller space programs—like India’s and Japan’s.
Great, so we can build a less expensive Moon base. Even spending “only” a couple of billion dollars on this requires deep thought as to why would we do this. Moon bases can be used as staging for other excursions, like future efforts to colonize Mars—something that, without question, is on the US agenda. As I learned while researching “Dark Side of the Moon,” China has many other soft landing Moon missions on the drawing board planned for the very near future. The European Union and Russia are likewise looking to return to the Moon with manned missions. The reasons for doing so vary, but one of the most prominent is to excavate minerals and raw materials that would enable Mars colonization: by building a Moon base, you can overcome one of the major obstacles of going to other planets.
One of the first things I learned for “Dark Side of the Moon” came from a series of discussions I had with an engineer at NASA’s JPL (Jet Propulsion Laboratory): a great deal of rocket power—and fuel—is required to lift the tremendous weight of astronauts, equipment, and supplies for any mission that must blast through Low Earth Orbit. This engineer, who works on the Mars project, explained that the mass required for a nine-month Mars journey, not to mention the living quarters you need to bring along and erect once there, is enormous—and it’s made exponentially worse by having to escape Earth’s gravity. But since the Moon has very little gravity, if you transport all these materials to the Moon in a series of separate, small launches—or mine some of it from the Moon itself—you only need a fraction of the amount of fuel and rocket power to lift it off the lunar surface. All the surplus fuel and weight can be reserved for the journey to, and settlement on, Mars.
Building a Moon base isn’t the only way to get to Mars, but it’s one that the Chinese, Russians, and EU have favored. The US lacking a base on the Moon—or claiming the raw materials there (current treaties notwithstanding)—leaves us limited in our options and potentially left out. The current administration has reversed course and again put a return to the Moon back on NASA’s plate. For its part, as noted in “Dark Side of the Moon,” the US has been working on the multi-use, multi-purpose spaceship and rocket (SLS/Orion) to get us to other planetary bodies, including our moon.
Finally, another reason for returning to the Moon has military implications. Maintaining US superiority in space is vital to our land-based armed forces—if nothing else because our satellite operations direct everything we do in terms of monitoring foreign powers, enabling US troop movements and other military logistics and communications. In short, it’s vital to protecting America and American interests abroad. The Chinese and Russians have been working on ways to take out our military and communications satellites, from space, to cripple our defenses. As a result, we need to maintain a robust space program to keep pace with the world. A Moon base allows us to stage operations outside of the Earth’s limiting gravitational atmosphere—including powerful, space-based lasers. To be sure, the US Space Corps has pondered the military implications of such a base of operations.
All this feeds the opening question: Will the US be returning to the Moon? It’s an issue with a great deal more complexity than meets the eye. It is a debate that will rage on in the near future.
During his twenty-four-year career in publishing, award-winning and USA Today bestselling author Alan Jacobson has learned a thing or two about writing engaging stories and creating characters we care about. Jacobson has embedded himself with law enforcement officers across a range of agencies, including the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit; the DEA, US Marshals Service, ATF, NYPD, SWAT, and the US military. Nelson DeMille, James Patterson, and Michael Connelly have called his series protagonist, FBI profiler Karen Vail, one of the most compelling heroes in suspense fiction. Likewise, his OPSIG Team Black series has been lauded by real-life Navy SEALs. For more on his novels, visit www.AlanJacobson.com.