It's been a while since we've visited the moon, 37 years since the last Apollo mission, to be more exact. Sure, we've sent robots up there, but no one's taken a leisurely stroll on the moon since Eugene Cernan on the Apollo 17 mission.
Andrew Chaikin has spoken with 23 out of the 24 people that have walked on the moon, and has written several books about moon exploration. Recently he visited the Pacific Science Center to make his case for a return to the moon.
After a short introduction by the Science Center's Senior Vice President for Strategic Programs, Chaikin shared with us his excitement for all things moon-related. In the cavernous reaches of the old Eames IMAX Theater, an intimate crowd of bespectacled gentlemen, families, and two kids that weren't like the others braved the weatherpocalypse to listen to him speak and show slides.
His tan sportcoat and the earthy green sweater of a college professor contrasted with the hints of smiles at the corners of his mouth. Like a kid who just got a Nintendo 64 for Christmas, his enthusiasm for the subject was contagious. I'm pretty sure that was his goal.
There are several reasons why we are not running manned missions to the Moon these days, according to Chaikin. The most obvious is the lack of money. Yet, the reason for the lack of money can be traced back to the distinct lack of societal interest. In the late '60s, Chaikin was 12 and visited a NASA space center. Like many young boys of his generation, he wanted to be an astronaut.
(I would guess that the number of young children who currently respond "astronaut" when asked what they want to be when they grow up is pretty disheartening to Chaikin)
Chaikin presented a slide show that felt a lot like family vacation photos. Except this family went to the moon. Even though Chaikin has never been, his description of the slides made it seem like he was a part of the exploration of it. And, in a way, he was. He has recorded the personal history of the experiences of those that have traveled to that remote vacation spot in various books in a search to know what it felt like to go.
As far as I can tell, it's pretty amazing. The view is pretty decent. You can run for miles and never get tired. You can drive as fast as your battery-powered car will go without worrying about tickets. Your tan when you come back will really impress your co-workers. And, you will have a chance to learn about the history of the solar system by checking out "a book from the cosmic library," as Chaikin calls it.
Lunar geology really gets Chaikin excited. As he states, "On the moon, not a lot has happened in the last 3 billion years." This gives scientists a chance to learn about how planets are formed, how often meteors, comets, and whatnot will hit Earth, and various other scientific endeavors that have probably not even been thought up yet. (For example, trying to bomb the moon.)
Chaikin reported that the LCROSS mission was pretty unspectacular. A couple pixels of heat registered on an infrared camera. We got a blurry image of a tiny plume of dust from the rocket smashing into a crater that has never seen the sun and is happy at -390 degrees Fahrenheit. Our goal was to find water in that crater. What did we find? Maybe we'll know by the end of the year, but we sure don't know yet.
In his slide show and his report on current moon research, Chaikin seemed to be touching on a common theme with his statements. Occasionally, missions like LCROSS or the Mars Rover stimulate the country's curiosity and need for exploration, but Chaikin says that we need to become more ardent explorers again. Seekers of not just adventure, but knowledge. He sees a scientifically apathetic youth and, perhaps worse, an apathetic government when it comes to space exploration.
One of the reasons for this is that there is "no gold rush in space." Simply, there is no obvious money to be made. However, Chaikin mentioned China's goal to put humans on the moon as a possible motivation for the U.S. to get on with the making of Space Race 2: Electric Boogaloo. Even private companies are finding ways to profit from potential space tourism.
Yet, every pound of material launched into space still costs $100,000, according to Chaikin. This is not cheap. Chaikin realizes that it will be quite some time, or require some new technological advances, before space travel comes down in price.
Still, he has ideas about how we can get back up there. He thinks NASA should focus more on research and development of new technologies. He advocates for more science education in schools. And, perhaps most importantly, he yearns for those days when Americans were eager to go explore. When we were curious about our universe. By writing his books and showing amazing pictures of places none of us have ever considered visiting, he hopes to inspire the next generation of space explorers.