One-fifth of the entire world population watched the live broadcast of the first Moon-walk, so it is no surprise that we all remember or have heard those famous words spoken by Neil Armstrong in 1969. The Apollo program and lunar landings aided the advancement of many fields of engineering, and is considered by many to be the greatest achievement of mankind. Nearly forty years after the end of the Apollo missions, NASA finally plans on returning to the Moon.
Before NASA returns man to the Moon, they plan on doing extensive studies. The first mission to the Moon will be the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (“LRO”), which is scheduled to launch by the end of this year or early next year. The LRO will be equipped with the most sophisticated technology ever sent to the Moon–including instruments to make detailed 3-D maps of the entire lunar surface, locate subsurface water-ice, and record radiation levels to help develop technologies which will ensure the safety of future crews.
Launching with the LRO is the Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite (“LCROSS”). In 1999, NASA’s Lunar Prospector detected the spectral signature of hydrogen in the Moon’s permanently shadowed polar craters. LCROSS will impact the Moon in one of these craters. The impact will send a plume of material into space, which will be observed by a near-infrared camera, which will analyze the plume for traces of water. Presence of water on the Moon would be an important natural resource for a future lunar colony.
NASA plans on having mankind back on the Moon by 2020. Utilizing the new equipment which is currently being developed as part of the Constellation program, four astronauts will land on the Moon aboard the new Altair Lunar Lander, which will provide life support for the initial week long mission to the Moon. The Lunar Lander will be launched into low-Earth orbit aboard an Ares V Rocket, where it will rendezvous with the Orion crew vehicle.
Returning man to the Moon is the important first step in NASA’s new Moon Mars and beyond initiative proposed by George Bush. The Lunar surface will be explored and studied in an attempt to learn how to build a successful space colony. Risks such as radiation and psychological trauma will have to be fully understood and overcome before any long-term manned missions to Mars, or elsewhere, can be pursued. Having a colony on the Moon will also help us study how the Earth and Moon were formed, and giant telescopes on the Moon will not have the atmospheric interference which is a problem on Earth. Along with the many scientific advances which will follow future lunar landings, returning to the Moon will renew the general population’s interest in space exploration.