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Why Go Back To The Moon?

Apollo 17's Gene Cernan, the last man on the moon. Photo: NASA
Apollo 17's Gene Cernan, the last man on the moon. Photo: NASA

It’s been more than 45 years since humans stepped foot on the moon. Now, federal space agencies and the private sector are trying to return, each with their own reasons. But why?

A Door Wide Open

Before leaving the surface of the moon, and taking with him the title of last man to walk on the lunar surface, Gene Cernan sent one last message to Earth.

"One of the most significant things we can think about when we think about Apollo is that it has opened for us, for us meaning the world, a challenge for the future, the door is now cracked."

That door, it seems, is now kicked wide open. The Trump administration has set its sights on exploring the lunar surface, and with that proclamation private companies are jumping on board with their own plans to return to the moon. But why go back?

A Wealth of Knowledge

There are troves of scientific reasons to head back to the moon, says Planetary Society's Senior Editor Emily Lakdawalla.

"There is so much left to do at the moon," said Lakdawalla. "The moon is an entire world, it’s huge, and it’s next door and it contains the early history of the earth moon system that has long been destroy by the Earth. It’s a way to discover the origin of our planet."

An understanding of the moon could also lead to answers to the age-old question: are we alone?

"It also relates to whether there's other life in the universe, whether there’s other places like earth in the universe," Lakdawalla explains. "We have to understand whether the creation of our earth moon system was just an unusual one off or if something like this could happen a lot."

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Artist's concept of NASA's Deep Space Gateway. Photo: NASA[/caption]

A return to the moon can also serve as a dress rehearsal for missions to farther places, like Mars. Apollo astronauts spent only days in deep space. Missions to Mars would require months - even years - living and working in deep space.

NASA wants to set up a Deep Space Gateway, a new space station near the moon, to explore what it’s like to work and live hundreds of thousands of miles away from home. That could serve as a spring-board for deeper space missions like Mars.

That's What I Call High Quality H20

Even before the Trump administration pivoted towards the moon, scientific discoveries were fueling another sort of motivation to get back to the moon: water.

"Water is the oil of the solar system," said Bob Richards, founder and CEO of Moon Express, a Cape Canaveral based private company that’s launching a space craft to the lunar surface.

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Bob Richards, Moon Express, poses next to a mock up of the MX-1 lander. Photo: Bob Richards / Twitter[/caption]

Planetary scientists confirmed the presence of water in large deposits near the lunar surface. Water can be used for rocket fuel. The elements of water, hydrogen and oxygen, can be separated and tuned into fuel for future missions and it could be a money-maker.

"Having basically a gas station in the sky is a game changer of the economics, not just of the other resources of the moon, but the rest of the solar system." Richard sees a future lunar economy and he’s working to be the first to take advantage of the resources the moon hold.

It's not just the water on the moon he’s after. He wants to mine the surface of the moon for minerals for use back here on Earth.

"We also believe we can monetize those early samples," said Richards. "Eventually when the samples get big enough, it turns into economic ore, then we can talk about the realm where lunar resources are impacting our future as a species."

He believes fuel and ore collected from the moon will spur deep space exploration and take humans far beyond the moon.

As to what minerals and metals Richards and other private moon miners might find there is still a mystery. Scientists have an idea as to what might be available on the moon like iron, platinum and helium, but just how much and where it is will take on the ground exploring.

The Lunar Economy

There hasn’t been much analysis into a future lunar economy, but one estimate has it generating $1.5 billion by the end of the decade.

It could be be more, though. No private company has ever been to the moon. That’s because getting there is really hard.

"The terrain, from a landing perspective, is very treacherous.," explains Richard. "It’s like trying to land in the Rocky Mountains.  There are soaring mountains, craters that would make the Grand Canyon look like a tributary. The topography is extreme."

That’s why Google wanted to sweeten the pot a bit. It’s offering the XPrize, a $20 million award to the first private company to land successfully on the moon. Richards and Moon Express are competing with four other teams for the prize money. He hopes to launch his R2-D2 sized lander called the MX-1 within the next year.

As the private industry chases the first of the lunar gold rush, planetary scientists wait patiently to cash in on new scientific findings.

Brendan covers space news for WMFE, everything from rocket launches to the latest scientific discoveries in our universe. He hosts WMFE's weekly radio show and podcast "Are We There Yet?" which explores human space exploration.