Scientist: Moon Still Uncharted Territory, Full of Potential

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  Space News Business

Scientist: Moon Still Uncharted Territory, Full of Potential

By LEONARD DAVID
Space News Staff Writer
posted: 22 February 2007
03:19 pm ET


ALBUQUERQUE, N.M.– While some scientists believe that humanity has literally only scratched the surface of the Moon in terms of scientific exploration and discovery, they acknowledge that a lot of work remains to be done to convince the public that current U.S. plans to return to the Moon are more than a “been there, done that” repeat of the Apollo program.

Some of the scientists who gathered here Feb. 11-15 for the 2007 Space Technology and Applications International Forum (STAIF) noted that the Moon is a large natural satellite with as much surface area as the African continent. In addition, they said, it can be reached in three days’ travel time, contains important natural resources, and offers a novel environment that eventually can be inhabited.

But they also said convincing the taxpaying public that the Moon is worthy of a human return requires far more evocative scenarios than those that have been have been used so far to promote NASA’s Vision for Space Exploration.

“Yes, we’ve been there, but we haven’t done that — and there’s so much yet to do … things that are actually really exciting,” said Brent Sherwood, manager of the Opportunity Development office at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, Calif . “We’ve got to start talking about the kinds of things that will get people to support and embrace [a lunar return] rather than either oppose it or be bored by it,” he said .

During the STAIF 2007 meeting, a technical committee of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) that focuses on space colonization issued a position statement on future utilization of the Moon. The group recommended research, development, technology and engineering goals that will be needed in order to establish a Moon base by 2015. They also projected what it might take to create by 2050 the first self-sustained, permanent lunar settlement of roughly 1,000 humans.

Those recommendations included “robust implementation of lunar settlements with commercial and international enterprise,” said Edward McCullough, chair of the AIAA technical committee from the Boeing Company, Huntington Beach, California. They also called for the United States to work with international partners to pursue free-market rules to the development of space; international conventions on property and mineral rights; and land management conventions to include provisions for homesteading, McCullough said.

Sherwood said that a lack of clarity about the value of returning to the Moon makes the plan vulnerable to public and political criticism, so much so that NASA’s lunar ambitions could be killed. During the conference he outlined a number of scenarios for future lunar activity that could improve the image of the program.

In April 2006, NASA convened a workshop intended to begin a long-term global dialog about what humanity will do on, and with, Earth’s Moon. The purpose of that confab was to glean ideas from diverse stakeholders — international, commercial, scientific and governmental — that could be organized into a “global lunar exploration strategy” — a strategy that agencies, entrepreneurs, scientists and enthusiasts could use to explain the purpose and importance of lunar activities to their governments, investors, sponsors and public.

Sherwood, who was one of the leaders of seven different groups that solicited views from some 200 participants, noted that the workshop generated hundreds of candidate activities that might be pursued on the Moon.

He has since fleshed out a series of scenarios that he believes have the capacity to startle and inspire non-specialists while helping to communicate lunar activities in years to come. They include:

�         Paving for dust control: The native lunar environment is a wretched place for routine operations. But so are coal mines, nuclear reactors, war zones, steel foundries, the Sahara desert or even the traffic-choked streets of Manila or Manhattan.

�         Establishing a colony of continuously active robots: Whatever capabilities are provided to human explorers they can be amplified many-fold by robotic abilities. Robots don’t tire or get bored, have less expensive “life-support” requirements, and can be designed to be less susceptible to variations in lighting, temperature and hazards than humans. They cannot yet emulate humans, but by 2030 — a reasonable timeframe for lunar base buildup — they may be getting quite close to having such handiness.

�         Designer biology: A key lunar activity could be the development of organisms that accommodate hard radiation, lower atmospheric pressure, different partial pressures of atmospheric gases, alien soils, long dark periods, strong blasts of ultraviolet light and produce more nutrients than native Earth species can. A lunar laboratory could explore a range of species that are tailor-made.

�         A search for pieces of ancient Earth: The Moon has recorded Earth-space history since its formation. There should be rocks in the lunar topside that came from Earth in that early age. How would we recognize them? How long, how far, how deep would we have to hunt to find them?

�         Establish a virtual real-time network to enable public engagement: On the wall-sized high-definition screens of the future, people will want to see to live feeds of lunar wilderness or worksite activities. Viewers would be able “walk around” on the Moon in immersive virtual reality — at school or home settings, not in theme parks. Lunar worker blogs could be highly popular, connecting Earth and Moon inhabitants as lunar living becomes part of daily “modern” life.

�         Conducting lunar kitchen science: Get down to the most practical things of all … how to cook, how to clean, how to live in one-sixth gravity and within a hermetic environment at risk of dust infiltration, rapid decompression, radiation exposure and temperature extremes. After all, until you can make a martini and cook an omelet, you can’t have a hotel.

“We don’t have to paint an integrated architecture. The only people that care about that are the Congress, NASA planners … aerospace companies. What gets people interested is a little view that’s very detailed of something that they can get inside of … that they can get interested about,” Sherwood said.

“I think to the outside world we are really boring,” Sherwood said . “We spend so much time talking to ourselves. We are in this little bubble that we perceive to be relevant to the world … but the world doesn’t perceive it that way.”

Sherwood said there is a need to break out of that bubble and talk about things that will be happening on the Moon of possible interest to the general public, to help shore up and sustain support.

“Otherwise what’s going to happen … it’s going to be a constant uphill battle,” Sherwood said .