Yesterday evening, NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter
went into orbit around the Moon, just four and a half days after launch. As LRO's orbit is adjusted and its instruments are switched on, its sister probe, LCROSS
, is entering a wide Earth orbit; in October, the rocket stage to which it is attached will crash into the Moon's south pole, and LCROSS will pass through the debris cloud and check for signs of water vapour that might be lofted from ice preserved in permanent shadow
before it, too, crashes.
The two probes were designed to be the first step in a programme that would culminate in a new generation of manned missions to the Moon. Given the current economic crisis and Obama's reported ambivalence towards lunar and interplanetary exploration, that programme is currently in some doubt, but in my mind there's no question that humans will return to the Moon as some point. Other people doubt this, however. In last week's Observer
, Robin McKie wrote
The Apollo moon missions were to herald a new dawn of space exploration, of lunar bases, manned missions to Mars, and more. But in the decades since - and after the Shuttle disasters - America's appetite for interplanetary flight dwindled. The moon landings marked not the beginning, but the end, of our space dreams.
He makes some cogent points. The Apollo programme cost as much as a small war. It can be considered as nothing more than a Cold War stunt, having no real purpose but to beat the Soviets to the Moon. Afterwards NASA scaled back ambitions to establish a permanent moon base and send a manned mission to Mars, concentrating instead on work in low Earth orbit that relied on the space shuttle, with its dreadful safety record. And now the space shuttle has reached the end of its useful life, the American manned space programme 'hangs by a thread'.
It's a pretty damming view, but it's also a partial view. McKie quotes just two 'experts' on the matter. One, Gerard De Groot, is a historian with an infamously jaundiced view
of the Apollo adventure; his claim that the Apollo programme now 'seems as strange as stuffing fraternity brothers into phone booths, swallowing goldfish or listening to the 1910 Fruitgum Company,' is no more than amusing hyperbole - forty years on, we're lacking a slew of books on phone-booth stuffing, or detailed analysis of the lyrics of 'Goody Goody Gumdrops.' The other, Professor Amitai Etzioni, is a sociologist best known for his work on communitarianism, with a sideline in criticising the space race; his claim that 'If you look at 100-year-old maps of the moon in old encyclopedias, you can see they are not that different from the maps we have made after Apollo' misses the point that we know less about the surface of the Moon than we do of Mars. The HiRise orbiter has mapped Mars with a resolution of 30 centimetres; the best resolution of the lunar surface obtainable by Earth-based telescopes is half a kilometre and by previous generations of lunar orbiters some twenty metres.
That's LRO's principal mission: to provide maps of the lunar surface with a resolution equivalent to the HiRise orbiter, and to search out places where future explorers can land safely. If LCROSS finds evidence of lunar ice frozen in shadows at the south pole, it will mean that any permanent base may be able to tap native supplies. Of course, lunar exploration won't be cheap. But the Apollo programme cost less than the Viet Nam war, that war was less costly, month by month, than the Iraq conflict, and the recent bail-out of US banks overshadows them all, costing more than the Lousianna Purchase, the New Deal, WW2, the Marshall plan, the Korean war, the Apollo moonshots, Viet Nam, the Savings&Loan crisis, and Iraq combined
. Cost is relative; relatively, Apollo cost very little (LRO cost even less of course - about the same as the annual amount Brazilians spend on cosmetics). And even if the US is at present reluctant to commit funds to manned exploration of the Moon, it isn't the only player in space. On the same day that LRO entered lunar orbit, India announced plans
to launch its first manned orbital flight, and gave itself a deadline of landing a man on the Moon by 2020. Some may considered manned space exploration a magnificent and transient folly; I'm on the side of the dreamers. And even if the science and historical significance of landing on the Moon fades into obscurity, the Apollo will have left us with one lasting legacy: the idea that our home planet is but a small, fragile and precious island of life in an immensity of space that dwarfs all human divisions.