Rand Simberg is a consultant in space technology, business, and policy, and author of “Safe Is Not An Option: Overcoming the Futile Obsession with Getting Everyone Back Alive That Is Killing Our Expansion Into Space.“
Michelle Hanlon is the executive director of the Center for Air and Space Law at the University of Mississippi and co-founder of For All Moonkind.
Fifty-four years after we first set foot on our lunar neighbor, the moon continues to beckon. It holds the promise of scientific knowledge, teases a wealth of resources and even offers a unique and pristine snapshot of humankind’s greatest technological achievement – the first off-Earth footsteps taken by our kind. But make no mistake; as we work (finally) to return to the moon within this decade, we should be moving forward, not back.
In an op-ed “Return to Tranquility Base first,” published earlier this month in SpaceNews, Walt Faulconer argues that the first Artemis lunar mission should not go to the lunar south pole as currently planned but rather to the initial human landing site where the Apollo 11 lunar module sits still at Tranquility Base. Faulconer offers several reasons to support his argument: historical significance, lower mission risk to the crew, and the opportunity to learn more about the long-term effects of the lunar environment by examining the artifacts left behind by the Apollo 11 landing crew. While those are noteworthy rationales, they pale compared to the benefit of initiating polar exploration as soon as possible.
Yes, returning to Tranquility Base would be deeply sentimental and hold a measure of historical significance. However, we do not have the luxury of time and resources to be sentimental.
What’s more, we do not have any certainty that we have the technological capability to return to Tranquility Base without doing substantial, irreparable harm to the site and the artifacts contained therein. And the idea that returning to Tranquility Base will somehow help “secure the site as an important historical site” is fanciful at best. The only act that will protect this – and other historic sites – as a universal heritage site is recognition by the international community, not the United States by itself. In fact, should the U.S. return there, it might be seen as an invitation to others to do the same, further endangering the site. In short, with the current mission architecture forced upon NASA by Congress to utilize the expensive and otherwise unnecessary Space Launch System, crewed lunar missions will be scarce and seldom commodities. It would be a mistake to waste one to recreate something humans did decades ago. It is a misguided homage that will potentially endanger that which it seeks to celebrate. We need to turn our meager resources to understanding how to find and utilize lunar water and other resources as soon as possible to facilitate missions measured in weeks rather than days, whether on the moon or beyond cislunar space.
And yes, it is unquestionably higher risk to go to a region with more craters and mountains, with more difficulty getting adequate light and communications, than returning to the biggest flattest mare (Tranquillitatis), which was the reason that site was chosen for the first Apollo mission. But true exploration entails embracing risk if the reward is great, and the risk, in this case, is not that much greater. After all, we go to the moon “because it is hard,” not because we’ve been there before.
It’s no longer the 1960s. We now have over half a century of experience in space hardware and operations.
Technology has greatly advanced. We aren’t the first to point out that your phone has thousands of times greater computing power and memory than Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin had in the Eagle. The Artemis landers will, too — in addition to modern sensors and fine-tuned control authority. We will have data-relay satellites in cislunar space for communications from the pole and other mission-support infrastructure that the Apollo astronauts could only dream of. NASA has done extensive probabilistic risk analysis and has appropriately deemed the benefits of landing at the lunar south pole to vastly exceed the additional risk. Finally, the notion that a single landing site in a region the size of Manhattan (e.g., Shackleton Crater) will somehow impede follow-on missions seems highly unlikely, if not downright ludicrous. Indeed, it offers the added challenge and opportunity of building missions that will re-use and incorporate old hardware into their systems.
As for the benefit of understanding the long-term effects of the lunar environment on space hardware, that would not be possible without physically retrieving the artifacts. This would necessarily involve irreparable damage to the site’s historical integrity, including the footprints. Moreover, even landing near the site would likely sandblast it with regolith violently liberated by the exhaust plume of the landing engines, even with the high-engine design of SpaceX’s Starship lander. Once the moon becomes industrialized, there will be means to safely approach all of humanity’s historic sites and properly record, memorialize, protect and even preserve them. But the first mission back after over half a century, without the technology capable of a safe approach, is not the time to do that.
In 1809, before the Battle of Wagram in Austria, Napoleon Bonaparte reportedly and famously said, “If you start to take Vienna, take Vienna!” NASA has been planning for years to go to the south pole of the moon, and that is where it should go.