Saturday, June 20, 2009

Back To The Moon



“Many years ago the great British explorer George Mallory, who was to die on Mount Everest, was asked why did he want to climb it. He said, ’Because it was there.’
Well, space is there, and we’re going to climb it, and the Moon and the planets are there, and new hopes for knowledge and peace are there.”
President John F. Kennedy
Address at the Rice University on the Space EffortSeptember 12, 1962
Last Thursday, June 18th, I found myself walking with my lovely case manager, Erin, to the main offices of Skid Row Housing Trust. She needed to drop off some paperwork, and I acted as her bodyguard. We had just left the Olympia Hotel where the Cooking Club would soon convene (grilled cheese sandwiches, I was one of the designated grillers). After completing our mission, while returning to the Olympia, I told Erin, "We're returning to the Moon today."
"We are?" she asked.
"Yes, we are."
I informed her that in a couple of hours in Florida, an Atlas V rocket would be launched, after a delay of one day because we can't seem to launch the Endeavor shuttle as it keeps leaking hydrogen, with two science experiments headed for the moon.
The Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter and the Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Spacecraft will enter lunar orbit on Tuesday. The LRO will continue to orbit the moon to look for possible future landing sites for a return to the moon by human astronauts. It will also search for potential natural resources, especially water, as it currently is very expensive to haul water, as well as any thing else, up into space, and it would be advantageous to have some nice lunar agua already there waiting for thirsty astronauts. The LRO consists of seven instruments that will return photographs, and information about lunar topography, temperatures, composition, and more. It also carries a microchip with approximately 1.6 million names that were submitted by the public in response to the LRO's "Send Your Name To The Moon," web-site. Mine and Erin's name are not on it.
The LCROSS, on the other hand will crash into a crater near the south lunar pole in October. Why? It's funny that you should ask. To look for more water, that is why. The LCROSS will hurtle an SUV sized stage into the permanent shadows of a polar crater thereby raising a plume which the LCROSS will actually fly through to analyze its contents. Hopefully some water will be there. It will also provide technologies and modular, reconfigurable subsystems that can be used to support future mission architectures before itself impacts with the lunar surface.
The Japanese have been up there recently with their KAGUYA Mission, which consisted of three orbiters to obtain information on the origen of the moon, and its evolution, and to gain data for future lunar exploration. KAGUYA impacted on the moon on June 10th.
NASA has just released it's plans for humans returning to the moon by 2018, as a stepping stone for going to Mars. By returning to the moon astronauts will gain valuable knowledge of existing and working in a harsh environment, much more unpleasant than what they will find on Mars, as the moon's atmosphere is so tenuous that it might as well not be there at all, and the temperature can vary from between 253 degrees Fahrenheit, to -387.
It will cost somewhere near 104 billion dollars to return to the moon over the next 9 years, counting increases for inflation, much more money than I have on me, or even in my bank, but within NASA's normal annual budget. Why would we spend so much money to return to an airless, barren rock, when we have so many pressing problems back here on earth. Because of the things we will inevitably learn, the new technologies we will develop which we can apply back here, and because, well, it's there. Our eventual goal should be to become an interplanetary species, so if aliens come and destroy the Earth, we'll still be alive on Mars, and elsewhere. Very important.
I forgot to ask Erin how long would it take to drive to the moon in her car with an average speed of 60 miles an hour. The answer of course would be forever, as there are no gas stations out in space. But if she did have gas it would take about five and a half months.
My lovely case manager was disappointed that the LRO and LCROSS were robotic in nature. She wants to see people return to the moon, the sooner the better. She is an adventurous space enthusiast. So am I. I told her of a time, almost 40 years ago, when I watched on television the Eagle's descent to the moon's surface, and Neil Armstrong finally reporting, "Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed," with about 15 to 25 seconds worth of remaining fuel. And a few hours later, "That's one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind," when he first took a step onto another world.
I can't wait to get back!

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